The state’s acting tax commission, Craig Bolio, this week informed the governor and legislative leaders that, based on the information collected, Vermonters may face a five percent increase in the property tax levied to pay for our schools, the largest increase in the last 10 years.

We have been down this road before. In 2017 a similar warning was issued; rates were to increase by nine cents. It didn’t happen, by the time the Town Meeting Day results were tallied the increase was negligible.

The information gathered in 2017 was premature and didn’t include the work being done by school boards, nor did it include the impact of school consolidation efforts. It’s almost impossible to calculate with any degree of accuracy how much the per pupil costs of our school system will increase before voters have the chance to judge. It may be a small amount, or it may be the full five percent.

Mr. Bolio’s figures show a $70 million cost increase with $28 million of that amount attributed to the rising cost of health insurance. But that’s also an unknown. The $28 million is an estimate based on the health insurance group’s proposed rate increase of between 12.9 percent and 14.7 percent. And the teachers’ union and our school boards are in the midst of negotiations as to what percentage of that increase will be paid by the teachers and what percentage will be picked up by taxpayers. Currently, the issue is before an arbitrator.

Be that as it may, the optics are anything but encouraging and they play out at a variety of levels. It’s hard to reconcile sizable budget increases when we continue to battle a declining number of students attending school. It’s hard to accept five percent increases in the property tax when that percentage is more than double the rate of inflation.

But, at the problem’s core, is the issue of educational outcomes, students having access to the same quality of education and how well they perform. We keep spending more, but we also keep being told that our students’ test scores are in decline.

That’s more than a little disturbing and, logically, we struggle to make sense of it. Education Week ranked all 50 states on per pupil spending for 2018 and, surprise, surprise, Vermont ranked first with per pupil spending of $20,640. Utah spent the least with $7,207. The national average was $12,526. New Hampshire, our next door neighbor, spent $15,719 per student. If we spent the same as New Hampshire, we would be spending just shy of $400,000,000 less than what we’re spending today, [and New Hampshire spends 25 percent above the national average.]

It’s also not an issue of a poor state [us] needing to overcome the effects of poverty. There are only 10 states that have a lower rate of poverty than Vermont. In the scheme of things we’re relatively affluent. So the poverty argument has no legs.

Two of our New England neighbors, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, also do better on test scores than we do. Massachusetts ranks tops in the nation, and its per pupil spending is $14,569 per pupil, or $6,071 per student less than Vermont. If we had the same per pupil cost as Massachusetts, we’d be spending $485 million less each year. New York also has a high per student cost — $18,665, which is still 11 percent more per pupil than what we spend.

There are always explanations as to why comparing costs between states is not comparing apples to apples, but no matter the explanations, taxpayers [and parents] have the right and the obligation to understand the whys and the wherefores. Vermont does not have factors that are unique to it and no other state. We have a declining student population, but so do other states. We are highly rural, but no more so than many other states. We are not on the poor end of the scale, in fact we’re on the upper end.

The discussion matters because until it’s understood it can’t be addressed and we will continue to point fingers at the way we fund education, or the recently passed school consolidation law, or special education, or, as advocated by some, the need to give everyone vouchers, allowing parents to choose where to send their kids to school, the aftermath being an acceptable consequence. It will be a finger-pointing exercise that will leave us where we are, just as it has for eons.

by Emerson Lynn

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