Feb 3, 2017

Selling Vt. short

Critics say taxpayers will not see a reduction in their property taxes under Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal to change how Vermont funds its educational system.

Paul Cillo, founder of the Public Assets Institute, says: “If schools make the cuts the governor has asked for, Vermont homeowners won’t see lower taxes. Instead, school budget savings will be used to cover new obligations the governor wants to pay for out of the education funding pot.”

It’s an “Oh My God” moment in Montpelier.

So, for Mr. Cillo as his ilk, the answer is to perpetuate the inertia that exists, to not deviate, to spend as we have, even acknowledging that our preK-12 educational system is experiencing a severe decline in student population?

The governor’s proposal was never offered as an immediate way to lower people’s property taxes. But it’s also common sense that property taxes will be less likely to rise if we don’t spend more. Right? And if future school budgets are linked to student population levels, then it follows that those schools in decline will reflect that decline in reduced spending. Right?

Doesn’t that work toward a stable property tax rate?

But even this near-term view, misses the larger point. What Mr. Scott is saying is that we can no longer look at education as something that happens between kindergarten and the 12th grade. It’s an early childhood through college, or a “cradle to career” process. What he’s saying is that the money is already there, it’s already being spent, it just needs to be distributed differently and in a way that reflects today’s educational needs, and the needs of tomorrow’s workforce.

It’s estimated that in the time period between the mid-1990s and the year 2030 Vermont’s student population will drop by 40,000 students, which means, roughly, that we will be educating about 35 percent fewer students than we did at our peak. We’ve already lost more than half that number and our student count is dropping by roughly a thousand students each year.

To say that’s a troubling statistic is an understatement of considerable proportions. Not only does it mean we can’t afford to spend more to educate fewer, it means we have to do a better job with those in the “cradle to career” system. The progressive part of the governor’s plan is that the savings from the preK-12 system would be plowed back in to early childhood and higher ed spending.

Although Vermont does an exemplary job with its preK-12 system, it does not do well with early childhood education, and it fails utterly with its support of higher education. That begs the question: Is our educational system really hitting on all cylinders if we fail to reach our children early, when they are most able to learn, and when their working parents need help the most? And are we truly doing well, when we have almost half our high school students not furthering their education much beyond their senior year?

No, we are not.

Not only is the governor’s plan fiscally prudent, it pushes an essential conversation forward. And it does it in a way that has the potential to remake Vermont’s educational system into something that could be the envy of all others.

It’s important to remember that there is an advantage to being the high spending state we are. And there is an advantage in having a student- teacher ratio that is half the national average. And there is a huge advantage in being a state that prides itself in the quality of its educational system.

We don’t have to remake ourselves. We don’t have to change our value system. We don’t have to shock the citizenry into spending more. But we do have to widen our view as to what a complete education system looks like. And we have to be open to things being done differently, and more efficiently. Instead of retreating into the shells of past behavior and insisting that change is the enemy, we need to generate the enthusiasm that comes from figuring out how we can do considerably better within the resources that are already available.

As Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe has already explained, Vermont has a “size problem.” We have too many schools that are too small to educate their students adequately. That also means that within the system there is the space and there is the manpower [at a high quality level] to consider options for early child care needs.

We also know that our higher ed community is a major economic development force and the stronger it is, and the more Vermont students it educates, the better the chances those students will remain in Vermont, helping, hopefully, to reverse the state’s population decline.

When these trends are understood, and when our considerable resources are seen for what they are, then it makes no sense to restrict the conversation in Montpelier to a debate over whether the taxpayers will really see their property taxes drop next year.

That sells us short.

by Emerson Lynn

Click here to visit the St. Albans Messenger website. 

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