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May 03, 2018

A Good Use of One-Time Funds

Vermont Governor Phil Scott has proposed using one-time funds from various sources to fill a $58 million gap in the state education budget. Normally using one-time funds to paper over a problem in a spending program which has grown beyond affordability is a bad idea. However, Scott’s proposal is to trade the one-time money infusion for changes which will not only make such bailouts unnecessary in the future but will also both improve the quality of education and reduce its cost. Sound too good to be true? The devil’s in the details and the details depend on the legislature as well as the governor. This effort could easily fail but that’s no reason not to try.

The elephant on the school bus is too many schools for too few students. There has been a severe decline in the number of school age children in the state; but the number of schools, especially elementary schools, has stayed the same. Because education has gotten more complex and because schools are required to deal with more and more social issues, the minimum staff required in even the smallest school has gone up. Put these two trends together and it is no surprise that Vermont has the highest staff to student ratio in the country (4.25 to 1) and the third highest spending per pupil.

If we had the best schools in the country, that might be an acceptable cost. But we don’t. It is impossible for very small schools to provide the type of education which is needed today. A small school can’t have enough teachers to provide excellent education in the basics which all children need let alone a broad curriculum beyond the basics. A small school can’t have different tracks in different disciplines so that students can progress as fast as they’re capable of progressing while getting the help they need in subjects which are tough for them. A small school can’t have diversity.

So why do we keep all our small schools? Partly because the VEA (teachers’ union) doesn’t want to lose the jobs that would go away with school consolidation; partly because a local school is more convenient for children and parents than one further away; and partly because of the Vermont tradition of “local control”, which is now a myth as far as education is concerned. Local control is only meaningful when people are voting on whether to spend their own money. Put another way, if you are a property taxpayer in a “rich” town and have a high enough income to be required to pay educational taxes, is it local control when people in another town vote to spend your tax dollars to keep their tiny school open?

What we don’t have is parental control (except in those towns which support school choice through tuitioning). There is no escape from a local public school which is too small to do a good job except moving or private school. What we don’t have is a high-quality education for all Vermonters despite all the money we’re spending.

Even though the cost of education goes up each year while the number of students declines, the needed school consolidation can never happen fast enough to solve the current year’s budget problem. Therefor the hard choices which school consolidation requires get put off each year.

Governor Scott’s proposed uses of one-time funds coupled with a multi-year mandatory increase in the staff to student ratio is a way to use this year’s budget to start a process which can assure both lower cost and better schools. This approach will only work if there are real teeth in the legislation which “solves” this year’s problem with short term funding and solves the problem for future years with rapid school consolidation. Getting such legislation may be impossible but is a worthy – a necessary – goal.  

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