It’s too early to have a clear picture of how Vermont should allocate the $1.25 billion it received last week from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. But a fully funded, fully functioning public education system has to be a top priority.
We’ve already heard demands that “schools need to share the economic pain” caused by the coronavirus crisis. At first blush, that sounds like a reasonable appeal to a sense of fairness. But it won’t be schools that pay the price if we start cutting education funding. It will be children, who already are going to miss about a third of this school year. Are we really going to ask third graders or high school sophomores to “share the pain” by giving up part of their education next year too? Are we prepared to tell them they need to do more with less education?
Putting the economy into an induced coma to fight COVID-19 has created serious problems for the state’s Education Fund. Sales taxes, rooms and meals taxes, lottery receipts, and similar revenue dedicated to the Education Fund are projected to drop $69 million during the last four months of the fiscal year (March through June). On an annual basis, that would be about a $200 million shortfall in the fund, and we have no idea yet how many Vermonters won’t be able to pay their schools taxes for the coming year.
Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature deserve credit for moving quickly to get money to Vermont individuals and businesses so they can buy food, pay bills, and cover other necessities. The execution was flawed at times, but they recognized the need, which hasn’t been the case for all political leaders across the country.
Voters have passed most school budgets for next year. The administration and the Legislature should allocate enough of the federal money to fund next year’s school budgets while giving taxpayers some relief with tax rates that are no higher—and preferably a little lower—than they were for this year. That will help to restore educational stability for Vermont’s schoolchildren, and it will provide direct help to Vermont homeowners, who can’t be asked to make up a shortfall in the Education Fund in the middle of this crisis. This is exactly the kind of coronavirus emergency the federal funds are meant to address.
Governor Scott wants to put Vermont on “a path toward having the very best education system in the country, and ultimately, in the world.” One of the things we’re learning from this pandemic is where we’ve failed to plan and make adequate investments for the future. We don’t want to be reminded by the next crisis that we should have maintained our commitment to our local schools, local communities, and the next generation.
Jack Hoffman is a policy analyst for Public Assets Institute (www.publicassets.org), a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Montpelier.