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Friday, June 12, 2015

Caring About Our Neighbors: As Expected from Vermont, Sensible Commentary on Education Policy

From The Barre-Montpelier TIMES ARGUS

By William J. Mathis
June 7, 2015

As the school board meeting adjourned, one member asked the chairman, “What was all that speechifying about every kid in the state getting an excellent education? What happens in East Overshoe is not my concern. And I shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

“To speak plainly,” the chairman rumbled. “I don’t want some unemployed, underemployed, doper from two towns over busting into my house trashing the place, ripping off my computer and big screen TV, and just being a general drag on society.”

“But schools are focused on tests, academics, and colleges,” another member countered, “They’re not equipped to handle dopers, misfits, solve poverty and build some sort of Utopia.”

“Then maybe they should!” the chairman roared. “Get your blinders off! The purpose of schools is to encourage virtue and prevent vice. Says so right there in the state Constitution."

"In case you hadn’t noticed, student poverty’s now up to 42.5 percent and that’s a problem for all of us. If you want your Social Security check, then you want those youngsters in good-paying jobs. We can’t fix our problems by building a fence around them.”

And there is our debate.

Some see our investment in education and people as our most vital priority. Others say, “Times are tough. A minimal ‘good enough’ education is all we should provide.”

In an era where narrow self-interest is paramount, the vision of the commonwealth is often lost. Yet without it, we can’t have civilization. While education bestows many benefits upon the individual, the genius of public education is in what it gives to all of society. Thus, schools should not be measured simply by our greatest successes; their essential measure is what they provide for all of our children.

Recognizing the greater needs, many states and the federal government provide additional services to socially and economically deprived children. Nevertheless, even with these extra resources, as a nation, we still spend 10 percent less on our neediest children. Vermont’s state aid formula says needy children should get 25 percent more in state support, but the reality sugars off to only 4 percent, according to the Education Trust.

To counter the case for the commons, the “free rider” myth claims that poorer towns exercise unrestrained spending since the more affluent towns pay the bill. The Picus report lays this myth to rest. More affluent and less affluent towns spend about the same. Since the poorer towns must pay the same taxes from lesser incomes, instead of free riders, the reality is a heavier and regressive tax burden on middle and low incomes.

To be sure, Vermont spends more on education than most states. Showing a fine return on investment, our outcomes are superb. Nevertheless, feeling the tax pressure, the Legislature approved an “adequacy” study. The thinking is that if we determine how much it takes to provide an “adequate” (meaning a basic generic) education program, then the state only has to provide support to this lower level. Advocates for this approach say this will meet the needs of children as well as the requirements of the Brigham decision.

It fails on both counts.

First, state adequacy studies suggest that Vermont’s theoretical extra 25 percent funding for needy children would not be enough. The studies from other states typically report that an additional 40 percent to 100 percent is needed for at-risk students. For English language learners, the estimates are higher, ranging from an extra 76 percent to 118 percent. Thus, the study might result in calls for increased spending.

Second, the Brigham decision was based on equitable taxation rather than adequate educational programs. Before Act 60, the foundation program set a base education amount at a set tax rate. If a town wanted to spend more, it could do so on their town tax base. It was the inequity between town tax bases that was found unconstitutional. Some towns had wealthy tax bases and others were impoverished. Bringing back a similar system would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster.

The greatest educational problem in the nation and in Vermont is the opportunity gap. While national test scores have increased dramatically over the past 30 years, the gap has quit closing. Historically, education has been the great equalizer, and it has served us well. But today is a different world. If we want to close the gaps, the emerging research consensus is that we must address income inequality, the bifurcation of the job market and segregation of communities if we are to maintain a healthy democracy. The achievement gap is the indicator of our social gaps.

Unfortunately, we do precious little to resolve these problems. The United States is ranked 26th of 29 in child well-being among affluent nations and 27th of 29 in education. As the United Nations has reported, “The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children — their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued and included in the families and societies into which they were born.”

Certainly we have population declines and resource limits. Just as certainly, we have opportunity and economic gaps. As our board chairman said, maybe it is time to take our blinders off.


William J. Mathis is managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a member of the state Board of Education. The views expressed are his own.

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