report from montpelier

Kate Webb

By Rep. Kate Webb
Governor Scott’s inaugural speech identified the importance not only of public school K-12 education, but also the social, educational, and economic value of well-funded early childhood and higher education. I was caught by surprise last week when we heard his plan. Equally surprising was how few stakeholders had an opportunity to weigh in on this plan before it came forward. I will chalk some of this up to the learning curve of a new governor that will improve over time. Specifics of the proposal can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/gvfhzyl

While the goal is worthy, the implementation is fraught with problems, particularly in scope and timing. The proposal creates a $50-million-dollar hole in the Education Fund, opening the door for raising, not lowering, property taxes, with those paying based on income feeling the first blow. It shows a marginal appreciation for how budgets are developed and overrides Vermont’s closely held value of local decision-making and collective bargaining. It may well violate the Vermont Constitution by creating inequities between high and low grand list communities. He seems unaware that teacher health coverage changes next January, shown here: http://tinyurl.com/jr8jwsz . Our newly formed Champlain Valley School District would see draconian cuts.

Instead of this wholesale rush to change, I would suggest the governor stay the course this year and focus on the following issues going forward:

First, focus on implementation of Act 46, the 2015 law designed to move Vermont toward a more sustainable model of education governance. Statewide implementation may be our best hope long-term to ensure a more stable and efficient system that is responsive to our changing population needs, economics and 21st century issues. Sixty-six school districts, including our own, have merged into thirteen. Nine face votes in March. Others are still struggling and need help. Keep those conversations going and give it time to work.

Second, 66% of school funding comes from property taxes, well above the national average of 40%. The 2016 Picus Report found our funding system equitable, but highlighted special education spending as unusually high. The Scott administration would do well to focus on rethinking how we fund special education.

Third, review implementation of Act 166, the 2014 universal pre-K program in effect this year. Updates are indicated. Consider means testing subsidies to spend dollars on those who really need help instead of subsidizing those for whom cost is not an issue.

Fourth, dig into higher education issues. Our students are graduating at record rates but not continuing on to higher education so necessary for today’s workforce. Act 77, the 2013 law that created flexible pathways to complete high school and achieve postsecondary readiness, is making a difference.

A January 2017 report from Secretary Holcombe points to findings that “provide some compelling evidence that dual enrollment will contribute to increase postsecondary attainment of Vermont students.” High schools, career and tech centers, colleges, universities, and businesses are coming forward with ideas to prepare our students for employment and life beyond high school. Listen to them.

And finally, pay close attention to what is happening in Washington. Identify the threats to public education as they relate to funding from Washington and be prepared to respond.

I share the governor’s wish to address early and post-secondary education underfunding. I also share his concern regarding education costs. In his first year, the governor would be wise to stay the course this year and turn his attention toward 2019 and beyond. At that point, we will have a better understanding of changes at the federal level.

Please feel free to contact me at kwebb@leg.state.vt.us or 802 233-7798. I am always happy to meet with you either in Montpelier Tuesday-Friday or in Shelburne by appointment Saturday-Monday.

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