Report from Montpelier: May 29, 2014

Education update

Shelburne Representatives Joan Lenes and Kate Webb highlight education in this second article in a three-part series. Next week: environment and infrastructure

Important conversations began this year addressing the future and underlying costs of education and school governance. By the end of the session, we simply ran out of time to complete this work. As we face the three variables of declining enrollment, escalating costs, and changing requirements for 21st-century learning, expect to see education receive a significant focus in 2015-16. Legislation passed this year created the Vermont Strong Scholars program, extended universal pre-kindergarten opportunities, addressed long-standing funding problems in the teachers’ retirement health benefits program, updated open meeting laws, and made some adjustments to education funding. The following is a partial summary:

Investments in early learners
Although most districts, including Chittenden South Supervisory Union, offer 10 hours of Pre-K instruction during the school year, 13 percent do not. Next July, all districts will offer this resource, which is estimated to serve an additional 1,800 children who would otherwise not have access to this opportunity. Not all parents are expected nor are they required to take advantage of this program. Using a blend of public and approved private programs, this hybrid promotes affordable options for high-quality education in a myriad of settings across the state. It contains the flexibility working families requested.

A comprehensive list of prequalified programs will be available to parents in a publicly accessible database and will give school boards the authority to limit its tuition payments to prequalified providers within the region. By eliminating the real-life hurdles to Pre-K enrollment, we are making wiser investments with our education dollars and doing the right thing for children during the early years of rapid brain development.

Connecting college students with Vermont employers
How can the state attract and keep a talented workforce? The new Vermont Scholars and Internship Initiative is designed to encourage Vermont post-secondary students to consider jobs in economic sectors that are regarded as critical to Vermont. Starting in July 2015, students enrolled in Vermont post-secondary institutions who live in Vermont upon graduation may be eligible for partial loan forgiveness for education in targeted fields. It also provides for experiential learning through internship opportunities with Vermont employers. Using Workforce Education and Training Fund and working with colleges, students and Vermont employers, the State will identify and foster post-secondary internships that are “rigorous, productive, well-managed, and mentored.” This fall, the Secretary will report on the economic sectors selected, projected costs, funding sources, and the feasibility of extending this to Vermont students attending schools outside of Vermont and out-of-state students attending Vermont institutions.

Funding education
We heard loud and clear that escalating property tax rates are unsustainable. Of the $2.1 billion dollars appropriated for education in FY 2015, 72 percent comes from property taxes, 19 percent from the General Fund, and 6.5 percent from Federal funds. The tobacco fund and pension fund transfers make up the rest. Balancing the often competing interests of high quality education with the desire not to increase taxes to pay for it will clearly require fresh thinking.

The education property tax begins with a recommendation from the tax commissioner based on projected budgets from local school districts. The tax bill is then built in the House then passed to the Senate for review and modification. If the two bodies are not able to agree, a committee of conference works to reconcile the differences before returning to both bodies for a final vote.

To help curb costs going forward, the Legislature anchored the excess spending penalty to the current fiscal year and increased it by an inflation index rather than average statewide spending. We required a fiscal note for any new legislation that creates an unfunded mandate on our school districts. The House voted twice to double the General Fund transfer, tax e-cigarettes at tobacco rates, and phase out the small schools grants to reduce the property tax. None of these survived in the final version.