It seems as if Vermont has struggled with tight budgets since the dawn of time. Every legislative session begins with the affordability sermon and every year we pat ourselves on the back for how flinty we are with a buck, knowing deep down we’ve not been tested, that we’ve not had to choose between what’s important and what is not.

Until now. If the economy’s engines continue to run silent much longer, courtest of the virus, scarcity will be pulling up a chair to the table. We will be forced to establish priorities that in years past would seem unthinkable.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in our health care and educational systems. Both are at risk. Hospitals are bleeding cash and the funding streams for our schools are running dry. Rural hospitals run the risk of being closed, and our schools, particularly for the next fiscal year or two, are going to struggle to fund their budgets.

It’s a stage set for the engaged, not the apathetic, and much hangs in the balance.

We can’t rebuild our health care system by stuffing the same amounts of money into the same pockets. If the coronavirus has taught us anything it’s that our public health needs have been massively underfunded and that our chronic illnesses — responsible for 84 percent of our health care system’s costs — continue to be ignored.

We have the beginnings of an answer in place with the all payer system being run by OneCare Vermont, our departure from traditional fee for service medicine. Can we hold on? Or does it become a casualty of the pandemic, when it’s simply more comfortable to retreat to what is known, and is comfortable, and can be funded with fewer questions?

The same uncomfortable questions confront us with our schools. It’s increasingly difficult to reconcile costs with our student population numbers, and, the proposed closing of three Vermont State College campuses has highlighted the disconnect between the education we support at the preK-12 level and what we support at the higher ed level.

It should be a connected system. It’s not. It’s a given that tomorrow’s workplace will demand skills above what is offered in high school, yet we place almost all our resources into the preK-12 system and virtually nothing into the education students need beyond high school. The disparity is stark. We are at the top nationally in our per pupil spending at the preK-12 level and we’re dead last when it comes to what we spend on higher education.

So we’re outraged when the Vermont State College system comes tumbling down? How could it be otherwise?

Think about this: If Vermont spent what New Hampshire spends on a per pupil basis [preK-12] we would spend over $300 million less than what we spend now. That $300 million would be between four and five times what we spend on higher education. We would not be having this conversation about closing campuses. Our schools would be better. They would not be falling apart. Our tuitions would be affordable.

How we handle the challenges in health care and education will shape Vermont’s future for decades to come. The need for the discussions is unavoidable.

by Emerson Lynn

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