Our poorest and most diverse Vermont school districts have been critically underfunded for decades. This is due to inherent flaws in the pupil weighting formula, which directs how Vermont calculates student needs and allocates education funds across the state.
The Pupil Weighting Factors Report of 2019, commissioned by the Legislature and written by researchers from the University of Vermont and Rutgers University, concluded that Vermont does not currently recognize the actual costs of educating students who attend small schools, come from low-income households, live in rural areas or those who are English language learners.
Districts that educate many of these learners are forced to make up for the lack of resources by raising their property taxes or by making cuts to their school budgets. The report made very specific recommendations on exactly how to adjust the weights to create equity in the funding formula.
Rutland struggles to meet the increasing needs of children who are deeply scarred by the opioid epidemic. Burlington and Winooski, the most diverse communities in the state, struggle to pass budgets that fully support the needs of diverse students. Windham County and the Northeast Kingdom struggle with a lack of economy of scale while having to provide essential human services for our rural students.
Other struggling districts throughout the state all share the extreme difficulty of meeting students’ minimum needs due to insufficient resources. Meeting these specific needs often comes at the expense of cutting general education programming. Imagine what we could do if we were equitably resourced.
The task force on the implementation of the pupil weighting factors report has been meeting since June to try and solve this issue. While they agree that the problem is real, the solution has become highly politicized.
The task force could have spent some of its allotted 12 meetings creating an implementation plan — as it’s appropriately named — that would phase in and mitigate taxing impacts on “overweight districts,” those that have had access to more resources than their actual student needs demand. Instead, they have spent their time creating alternatives to the weights, paying little deference to the expert recommendations right in front of them.
With few meetings remaining, the task force’s only released proposal strips English language learners out of the formula entirely, funding them with unreliable grants, separately from their native English-speaking peers. With no empirical basis for the grant amounts, the only thing that’s clear is that these grants would be a boon to many overweight districts, while leaving the most diverse districts with considerably fewer resources than the report recommends.
The task force has also made it clear that if they correct the remaining weights, they will use the smallest weights possible, which are derived from data that the report authors themselves have said are less accurate. Additionally, they’ve made it abundantly clear that they only intend to provide modeling for their proposals.
That means the task force will not provide updated modeling to compare their proposals to the empirically derived, highly vetted recommendations from the 2019 report. It is also worth noting that the task force includes two members from Addison County and none from Chittenden County. Diverse districts are not represented.
The common intersection between poverty and new American English language learners makes the flaws in our funding formula particularly troubling. As usual, our poorest and most diverse communities are most harmed by systemic inequities. It is their more homogeneous and affluent neighbors who, in contrast, have been getting more than their fair share of education funds for over 20 years. Under the corrected formula, everyone’s access to resources would reflect the diverse needs of students they are educating. This is true equity and the right thing to do to ensure that all of Vermont’s children have equitable educational opportunities. The influx of one-time federal funds could easily be used by the task force to mitigate the impact of such a formula change on overweight districts.
Recently, niche.com published a list of the top 10 public schools in Vermont. All but one of these schools is overweight. That isn’t a coincidence. Money buys resources. Most school districts in Vermont are underweight and doing their absolute best with what is available, but only so many programs can be cut from a budget, and we can only ask our low-income tax base to spend so much.
While we recognize that every Vermont district is struggling right now due to the pandemic, we promise you, not all struggles are created equal. The task force has a clear choice — to act on equity or to merely pay lip service to equity while maintaining the status quo.
Kendra Sower is chair of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a group composed of school board members from various communities and school districts across the state.