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By Heidi Spear
In last week's paper, Representative Greshin defended his vote to eliminate the Small Schools Grant in H.889, despite the fact that two towns he represents receive this grant. He did not speak to his vote against an amendment to even study the impact of the elimination of the Small Schools Grant on funding levels and student opportunity in small schools. I take serious issue with both of these votes and I feel it is important to present another point of view. This bill has not passed the Senate, so please note that there is a chance to speak up for reform, rather than elimination, of the Small Schools Grants.
I think most of us get it now, that our Legislature didn't create an equitable or sustainable statewide education funding system with Acts 60 and 68. It created a highly complex funding system that drove spending skyward due to a lack of clarity, accountability and restraint, embedded in a tragedy of the commons. As some might have noticed by now, I am for the total overhaul of our funding system. The system must be simpler with greater accountability for local spending across all towns.
However, to allow all the great inequities and engines for growth to persist and just eliminate the Small Schools Grants – the one categorical grant to buffer the impact of small school size on the Education Spending/Equalized Pupil Formula – is not advantageous to Waitsfield, Warren or Duxbury in any meaningful way, while it is extremely detrimental to taxpayers and students in Fayston and Moretown. Small Schools Grants this year totaled $7.5 million out of our total $1.6 billion in education spending in Vermont. Eliminating this categorical grant isn't going to trickle through and make an appreciable dent in taxes for any of us, while a slight change in Education Spending/Equalized Pupil packs a whammy.
With the elimination of these grants, every property owner in Fayston and Moretown will pay more into the statewide Education Fund for the same level of spending without any reduction in headcount. Alternatively, an additional $50,000 to $60,000 would need to be cut to make that a wash. After the cuts already made in these communities, it would not be reasonable to assume that such cuts would not impact substantially equal educational opportunities in these schools.
Mind you, this action to defund small schools or shift more tax burden to their communities is being taken without any data to support that smaller schools are delivering poorer quality education or data that they spend more. The Picus report of 2012 and much national research suggests that these are where some of the best education is happening in our state. Further, the data tells us our small schools are most commonly the ones spending the least within our statewide range of $10,000 to over $30,000 in total expenditures/student (average daily membership). Fayston and Moretown are solidly toward the middle of the pack, but many small schools spend near the $10,000 mark. The data is clear that higher spending levels in large schools are more commonplace and have a far greater impact on our taxpayers. Perhaps instead of spending disproportionately more on very large schools, and scapegoating small schools for our spending problems, we should channel our investments after asking the question, are these schools providing a quality education at a reasonable price?
Being concerned with quality standards is being concerned for kids, and being focused on providing maximum return for our educational dollars is showing concern for taxpayers. Rather than eliminate the Small Schools Grant, I would like to see it amended to ensure we don't throw more money at schools that don't delivery a quality education or which are truly unreasonably expensive.
I propose amendments to the Small Schools Grant to limit eligibility to those that meet a multi-faceted quality threshold. This threshold could factor in such considerations as standardized tests, graduation rates, climate (community engagement, parent involvement, incident reports and minimum cohorts) and/or efficiency. We could also cap grant eligibility for spending levels to 25 percent above statewide average total expenditures/ADM, for example. We can expect and think it worthwhile to fund less cost-efficient schools across our state, while drawing some line on how much is too much.
If we narrowed eligibility in these ways, categorical aid would be more appropriately targeted. Rather than reducing the affordability of quality rural schools across the board, effectively undermining them or excessively burdening their town taxpayers relative to others, we would ensure we focus dollars to safeguard and sustain quality education that serves children near to where they live.
We should note that our communities invest a great deal in our statewide education system for the privilege of investing in our local schools according to our student needs and our local votes. In 2014, as an entire SU our contributions to the Education Fund net of spending on all local schools were in excess of $4 million. In Fayston, our contribution was $1,735,529, net of our elementary school education spending, Harwood education spending contributions, special education reimbursements, transportation aid and our $60,742 Small Schools Grant. In this context, I feel keeping the Small Schools Grant is both reasonable and constructive and that we shouldn't vote for legislation that reduces our access to resources or increases our tax burden for obtaining them.
I hope that we can make a collective effort to reach out to our senators in Montpelier to ask them to submit and advocate for amendments to H.889 that call for expanding eligibility criteria rather than eliminating the Small Schools Grants.
There is no time like the present for anyone who cares about maximizing our access to our investments in education, equitable funding, or the financial viability of quality small schools. Please consider making a phone call or sending an email. It is not reasonable, unfortunately, to assume they will act in our interests otherwise.
Spear lives in Fayston and is chair of the Fayston School Board.