Ethan Allen Institute

Button-Mail

Click here to email us

Education

    The Evil School Choice Plot.
    Vermont’s most outspoken opponent of parental choice in education, Dr. William J. Mathis, says “research” shows no academic benefit from choice. He arrives at this surprising conclusion by disqualifying every single study on the subject. (February 2012)

    School Tax Slight of Hand
    Gov. Shumlin is understandably loath to increase the two state education property tax rates – so instead hatched two ingenious sleight of hand schemes to grab the same dollars without raising taxes. (January 2012)

    Getting Out from Under NCLB
    The Governor and Education Commissioner want a better deal from the Federal NCLB Act: never mind the accountability stuff, just keep sending money. (November 2011)

    A School Choice Shell Game?
    Gov. Shumlin suddenly comes out for universal public school choice - under a peculiar set of conditions.
    What is he really up to? (August 2011)

    Universal Preschooling: The Liberal Grand Slam
    The Universal preschool advocates are back again, for a final push for state control over Vermont's 3 and 4 year olds. But every argument they make is either suspect for flat out wrong. (October 2010)

    The Vicious Acts of 2010
    The "Vicious Act of (18)92" terminated local control of public education in subdistricts within towns. The 2010 legislature is well on its way to killing  off what's left of local control at the town school district level today. (August 2010)

    Unifying School Choice Out of Existence
    The new House bill to encourage voluntary regional school districts is likely to kill off parental choice of schools in 90 tuition towns within a decade. (March 2010)

    Three Prescriptions for Vermont Education
    Three reports have recently appeared on the future of Vermont education. One produced by a legislative committee is a total flop. One from the Department of Education wants to strengthen centralized command and control of the "system". One from a EAI-sponsored Commission says "scrap the system" and give parents and children what they prefer, at less taxpayer cost. (January 2010)

    Rebalancing Education Cost and Value
    A new EAI report argues that the only way Vermont can bend down the rising education spending curve, while maintaining and increasing educational quality, is to get rid of our centralized bureaucratic union-dominated "system" of education, and empower parents to choose among diverse educational providers. (December 2009)

    Promoting Diversity in Education
    Four other states now offer generous tax  credits to stimulate corporate contributions to student tuition organizations,  that in turn grant scholarships to independent and faith based schools to lower  income students. Creating a similar credit in Vermont would unnerve the public  school establishment, but it would benefit kids and - eventually - improve  educational efficiency. (August 2009)

    Education Costs and Results
    Vermont ranked number 3 on the 2007 ALEC state education report card, by spending the fourth highest per pupil in the nation - and still no more than 42 percent of our students qualify as "proficient". Maybe we ought to adopt a Florida A+ plan to get better results for less money. (June 2008)

    Vermont’s New 15-year School System
    Gov. Douglas's signature on the preschool bill paves the way to a full blown 15-year public education system - at a time when rising education costs are a major concern for voters. So much for the "Agenda of Affordability". (May 2007) 

    The Expensive Future of Early Education
    The universal preschool committee's draft report has some merits, but the end result will likely be a further Big Momma government expansion, with the usual higher costs to taxpayers. The ultimate vision is "Building Bright Futures", a $300 million tax-funded mega-nonprofit. (January 2007)

    More Money for More Schooling?
    A study committee on the costs and benefits of universal preschool is at work in Montpelier. Here are ten incisive questions its members need to answer honestly in their report to the legislature. If they do so, the campaign for universal preschools may well be terminally crippled. (September 2006)

    Answering the Vermont NEA Questionnaire
    The state's most powerful political action organization is seeking responses to its five-question candidates' questionnaire. Here's a reply that will send the Vermont-NEA running for their smelling salts. (August 2006)

    The Perils of Consolidation
    It's back again - a proposal for public school governance consolidation. This idea has been debated for forty years; there are some benefits, but lots of downsides. (June 2006)

    The Raid on the Education Fund
    The fund raiders are loose again in the state house, and their target is the Education Fund, predominantly funded by property taxes. It's time for legislators to say No to fund raiding - and to tell the education establishment just what the citizens expect for their $1.3 billion. (February 2006)

    Hard Choices on Expanding Preschools
    The legislature is moving quickly to expand the public school system by two more grades - authorizing public preschools for all 3- and 4-year olds. This will deplete the Education Fund by as much as $70 million a year and produce few if any benefits beyond taxpayer- subsidized day care (unless driving private day care providers out of business is considered a benefit.) (January 2006)

    Getting Value for Education Tax Dollars
    Property taxes for education have increased 22% in the past two years - and the public schools still won't tell us how well our kids are doing. Parental choice would make them tell. (August 2005)

    Cutting Through the Preschool Smoke and Mirrors
    The Senate will soon approve another high-sounding public pre-K education expansion. It's a clever effort to hold down per pupil spending in the face of declining public school enrollment. It will also tap millions of dollars from the Education Fund, not to help at-risk kids, but to babysit all kids. (May 2005)

    Facing Up To the Free Rider Problem
    For years the Vermont NEA has wanted non-member "free riders" to pay an agency fee for the union's representation services. Will the union agree to independent accounting of its expenditures in return? Probably not. (August 2004)

    The Preschool Bait and Switch
    Providing taxpayer financed preschool programs for all children through a "public private partnership" has a certain appeal. But when one spots the bait and switch, and closely examines the arguments, the facts, the alleged benefits, and the very real costs, it looks like another costly big government disaster in the making. (February 2004)

    Vermont Education by the Numbers
    Vermont education spending is up, teacher numbers are up, student numbers are down, test results are distressingly poor, and taxpayers are being taken for a wild ride. The problem is the education monopoly. There's only one real remedy: parental choice and provider competition. (September 2003)

    The Solution Legislators Can’t See
    The Act 60 "reform" of 2003 is entering its final stage. Unfortunately, it's just elaborate tax shifting and centralization of power in Montpelier. The real solution - consumer choice and provider competition - is not even on the table for discussion. (May 2003)

    Nice Work!
    In the face of a rising revolt against Act 60, the Department of Education comes up with a New Idea - expanding public schools downward to absorb children ages 3 and 4. (April 2003)

    Where’s Theseus?
    Long ago the Athenians found a hero who bravely slew the monster that was consuming them. Vermont needs to find its own Theseus who can rescue taxpayers from the education spending monster. (March 2003)

    Where Act 60 is Taking Us
    Consolidating school districts and tinkering with tax rates, sharing pool, and income sensitivity won't fix Act 60's big problem. With the link between local voters and local spending broken, Vermont is heading toward One Big School System. (February 2003)

    Home Schooling as Cost Control
    More and more Vermont families are home schooling. A small tax credit to encourage the trend could pay huge dividends in restraining Act 60's spiraling costs. (October 2002)

    One Big School System
    If you want to know where Act 60 is taking Vermont, take a look at Hawaii. You won't like it. (January 2002)

    Schoolchildren First
    Act 60 is sinking and will have to be replaced. Instead of accepting One Big School System, why not just empower Vermont's parents to choose what's best for their children? (July 2001)

    Looking Beyond Act 60
    Before long the legislature will have to replace the fading Act 60, It's time tostart looking at the alternatives. (May 2001)

    Fraudulent Choice for Vermont Parents
    Gov. Dean and the legislature say they want to expand "choice" for Vermont parents. Their bill is a fraud at best, and a menace at worst (May 2000)

    A Tiger Behind Every Door
    Act 60, so bravely passed in 1997, is heading for a fiscal crash. Every method for avoiding that crash will make a lot of voters very angry. (March 2000)

    Grassroots Education Reform
    The Education Freedom District bill would let your townspeople escape from the clutches of the education special interest groups, and do school reform on their own. (February 2000)

    Court Bungles Chittenden Case
    In the Chittenden case the Supreme Court discovered that the Vermont Constitution's "compelled support" clause prohibits tuition payments to faith-based schools. This time the Court didn't write its own bogus history, but it failed to understand the plain language of the Constitution. (June 1999)

    Draining the Shark Pool
    Gov. Dean thinks we should do away with the "shark pool" crafted by his friends in the legislature. Chances are real good we won't. (September 1998)

    New Brunswick's Lesson for Vermont
    Thirty years ago New Brunswick enacted its version of Act 60. It's not hard to see where Vermont will soon be heading. (June 1998) 

    Educational Financing Lessons from California
    After a property taxpayer's rebellion, California moved to state financing of local school districts. Now the state's education system is a disaster area. (December 1997)

    Local Control, R.I.P.
    How Act 60 sounds the death knell for local control of public education. (October 1997)

    Any Way Out of Act 60?
    A real alternative to centralized state control of education. (September 1997)

    Vermont's New Centralized Education Regime
    How Act 60 will transform public education, for the worse. (June 1997)

    The Brigham Decision as the Route to Education Reform
    How the Vermont Supreme Court's Brigham decision could lead to a really smart educational finance system (but probably won't). (February 1997)

    Why Educational Choice
    Public education has changed; now it exists for the providers rather than the customers. (January 1997)

The Evil School Choice Plot.
(February 2012)

An evil plot is afoot to pressure the states to adopt “school choice schemes”, according to onetime Rutland Northeast Superintendent Dr. William J. Mathis. He is currently a Shumlin appointee to the Vermont State Board of Education and Managing Director of the grandly-named  “National Education Policy Center” at the University of Colorado.           

According to Mathis’s article “School Choice: What the Research Shows”, the centerpiece of the plot is the Obama administration’s pressure on states to create charter schools. Vermont is one of 13 states that do not authorize public charter schools, thanks to the surprisingly determined opposition of Gov. Howard Dean and, naturally, the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union. The idea is not popular with the public school establishment either, since allowing parents to choose charter schools for their children threatens an exodus from poorly-performing traditional schools that their management may find it hard to explain when asking taxpayers for more money.           

It’s not just the Obama administration, either. Mathis states that “Vested interest think tanks, heavily supported by the deep-pockets of the Gates, Broad, and Friedman foundations” are also “major pushers” (as if parental choice is some kind of narcotic.)

One has to wonder how think tanks can become “vested interests”, when none of them can receive any financial benefit from increased parental choice. The real vested interests in education are people whose livelihood depends on the government continuing to deliver students and money, for instance, Rutland Northeast Superintendents.

In any case, Mathis has well earned the dubious accolade of being Vermont’s most persistent and extravagant opponent of giving parents more educational choices for their children. His opposition flows from a deeply-held ideology derived from the well-known socialist of the 1920s, John Dewey: “the purpose of education is a democratic society.”

For Mathis, that translates into a government-operated monopoly school system, managed by far-seeing and certified experts, into whose unionized schools parents are required to consign their children, and for which taxpayers are required to pay whatever is deemed necessary.

Without this common education requirement, Mathis believes, parents will too often make ill-informed educational choices that appear to them better for their children, with no concern for the democratic ideal. And that’s not democratic!

In his commentary Mathis declares that “the legitimate peer reviewed research shows that in general there isn’t any difference in test scores” between students in traditional public schools and choice programs. This is true only if one accepts Mathis’s condition that “so-called ‘research’ by groups advancing or opposing choice” are disqualified.

Last year Dr. Greg Forster (PhD Yale) published a report summarizing all ten empirical studies that used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies found that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit, and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study found no visible impact. None of these studies found a negative impact.

Forster also found, from surveying all of 19 additional studies, that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and students in “voucher threatened” public schools, which were forced to improve to prevent an outflow of students to competing schools.

The Forster report was published by the Foundation for Educational Choice, and the author clearly is enthusiastic about parental choice. For Mathis, that disqualifies his findings. But Forster examined all of the published studies on these subjects. If Mathis can disqualify them all for reaching pro-choice conclusions, there aren’t any studies left.

There was a time, in the last century, when the dominant opinion was: let every kid go to public school, let local school boards manage them to produce self-sufficient young citizens, fend off know-it-all-mandates from experts in the state capitol, and spend what local taxpayers could reasonably afford.

What has changed? The progressive centralization of control over public schools. The rise of combative, politically powerful teachers unions. Content-challenged teachers. Lower academic standards. Foolish, trendy curricula. The replacement of anything resembling the community’s moral values with behavior modification and political correctness. Deteriorating discipline and safety.

Many Vermont public schools still perform well in spite of these changed conditions. Many dedicated Vermont public school teachers give full value. But taken all in all, mandating that every student attend the government’s school of choice for the benefit of the school will no longer work to the benefit of many students, or of society. 

As no less than President Obama said, about health insurance, “My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.” That’s equally true in education, and we need to get on with empowering those consumers.

School Tax Slight of Hand
(January 2012)

 Vermont’s educational finance law is amazingly complex. That complexity means there are many points within the law where small changes can produce quite different results.           

Consider the current sleight of hand being performed by Gov. Peter Shumlin to avoid the dreadful necessity of increasing the residential and nonresidential school property tax rates in his reelection year.           

Under Act 68, the legislature set in statute a per pupil “basic educational support amount” (BESA) number: $6,800 in 2005. This number increases each year by a formula related to educational cost increases in New England. It got up to $8,544 two years ago.                

This year, by the formula, it is supposed to increase to $8,891.  Gov. Shumlin wants it to increase only to $8,723. Why does this matter? Because the residential school property tax rate is directly proportional to the amount per pupil a district spends in excess of the BESA. Hold down the BESA, and residential school property tax rates will jump up to bring more local tax dollars into the Education Fund. That would help make it possible to avoid raising the two property tax rates.           

Then there’s the Governor’s ingenious scheme to reduce the General Fund Transfer into the Education Fund. This transfer was designed in 1997 to convert the former state aid payments into funding for the new Act 60 Education Fund. 

Every legislative session the General Fund budget is under lots of financial and political pressure.  All of state government except transportation feeds from the General Fund.

The architects of Act 60 were well aware that a future legislature could start cheating on the GF transfer. So they wrote into that law an automatic formula to determine the amount of that required annual transfer.             

For quite a few years the legislature honored the transfer formula. Rising property values allowed the legislature to fill the Education Fund while slightly decreasing both residential and nonresidential property tax rates.           

But this year the deal broke down. Despite exhortations from the Governor and Education Commissioner, public school budgets keep climbing upward. Property tax assessments fell after the 2008 housing crash. There is terrific demand for GF dollars.           

In 2010 and 2011 the legislature used $38.8 million in federal stimulus money to comply with the GF Transfer formula. Now there is no more stimulus money. The formula requires replacing the stimulus money with Vermont tax dollars.           

So rather than raise those dollars by raising the two education property tax rates, Gov. Shumlin came up with a subtle plan to reduce the GF transfer. It’s called “rebasing”. It permanently redefines the formula base downward by $27.5 million.

That means there will be a $27.5 million shortfall in the Education Fund. That in turn means more school costs will be shifted onto residential property tax payers who are not likely to figure out what is being done to them.           

Back in March one alert legislator, Rep. Oliver Olsen of Jamaica, spotted this scheme in the fine print of the 2012 appropriations bill. He realized that this was a sneaky tax increase on residential property owners to enable the legislature to balance an overgrown general fund budget.           

Olsen’s amendment to strike this language failed 38-99. The Senate made some minor technical changes, but no senator tried to take out this hidden tax increase. The bill passed 27-1.

Jack Hoffman of the liberal Public Assets Institute, headed by the co-author of Act 60, is a sharp critic of this scheme. “When the legislature cuts the [General Fund] transfer,” Anne Galloway of Vermont Digger quoted Hoffman as saying, “it drives up property taxes for everyone.”

How would an administration committed to speaking plainly to the people of Vermont have handled this? The governor could simply say “despite my exhortations and stern letters from Commissioner Vilaseca, the voters keep on voting to increase school budgets. Therefore we will continue the General Fund transfer as required by Act 60, and increase the two state property tax base rates by two cents.”

“That will bring in enough to balance the books for another year. That increase won’t be popular, but it will give all of us more incentive to get a better grip on local school spending.”

A really visionary governor would go further: “Next year we are going to attack the ever rising costs of our government school system by ramping up parental choice and provider competition. That will produce better educational outcomes for our children, and actually reduce what we are now spending on K-12 education.”

Getting Out from Under NCLB
(November 2011)

Early in 2002 a Republican Congress, responding to the urging of their “compassionate conservative” President, adopted what has rightly been described as “the most intrusive Federal education law in American history.”           

The 1,100 page No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) reflected President Bush’s belief that the Federal government could , by offering the states a package of education “reforms” along with substantial Federal funding,  induce the states to improve public education. 

Liberal Democrats who had long supported a flood of new federal funding to their state and local public education constituencies readily signed on.. They were confident that any annoying federal mandates imposed on those bureaucracies would be soon weakened, repealed or easily evaded without reducing the flow of federal dollars.           

NCLB gave out the money on condition that states require schools to establish standards and annually assess students for “proficiency” in reading, science and math. It required all schools to achieve 100 percent student proficiency by 2014.

The act required “Adequate Yearly Progress” in approaching that astounding goal. If schools fail to make AYP, they must allow pupils to transfer to better public schools within the district (sorry, no transfer to independent schools). Then comes outside tutoring paid for by the district. Then comes big changes in staffing and curriculum. Finally, in the fourth year of AYP failure, the state would take over the school.

What is notable in NCLB, and essential to its passage, is that each state remained free to adopt its own standards and the test for measuring  student “proficiency”. Rather than run the political risk of having a low proficiency rate, states naturally contrived standards that a very high percentage of students could meet.

For example, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island went together to adopt standards keyed to a test called NECAP, spending millions of dollars in the process. The test is conspicuously less demanding that the national gold standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (NAEP results are reported by state, not by individual school district, so can’t be used for NCLB.)

A comparison of Vermont eighth grader reading performance over the past four years shows NECAP proficiency scores in the 65-70% range.  The Department of Education regularly extols this success.

But over the same four years the Vermont eighth grade students achieving proficiency under the NAEP test range from 40-43%. Faced with this embarrassingly low rate, the Department points out, correctly, that Vermont students are in the top tier of all U.S. students.

Clearly the NECAP test is much less demanding that the NAEP test, and the state Departments of Education set NECAP “cut scores” low to increase the fraction of students who qualify as “proficient.”

On September 15 Governor Shumlin and Commissioner Armando Vilaseca joined in a letter to the President, extolling Vermont’s educational leadership and successes, and requesting “relief from the one-size-fits-all requirements and sanctions imposed by the sections on Accountability, Assessment, and Improvement” in NCLB.

It is universally conceded that it will be impossible for states to achieve 100% student proficiency on any test, no matter how dumbed down, by 2014. Already 72 of Vermont’s 306 schools fail to meet the AYP benchmark, and complying will become ever more difficult.

To spare public school educators disruption and embarrassment all across the country, President Obama last month announced a new policy of  NCLB “flexibility”. Since Congress is not of a mind to amend the law to his liking, Obama will essentially rewrite the law himself to let states off the NCLB hook if they comply with a whole new bunch of federal requirements. These new mandates, arguably extralegal, will according to former Rutland Northeast superintendent and longtime NCLB critic Dr. William Mathis, “have massive cost, educational, and ethical implications.”

Mathis, incidentally, is the state’s most fervent defender of ever increasing public school spending.  He also vigorously opposes parental choice and any form of “high stakes testing”.  Gov. Shumlin named Mathis to the State Board of Education earlier this year.

NCLB was a bad idea when President Bush thought it up. Just saying no to it now, and regaining control of our own public education system, would deprive Vermont of $58 million handy federal dollars, almost $5 million of which feed the Commissioner and his Montpelier staff. So that won’t happen.

Instead, governor, commissioner, board, and superintendents will keep on seeking a minimally demanding NCLB compliance deal with Washington that protects the public school establishment, avoids any branding of failure, and above all,  keeps the money coming.

A School Choice Shell Game?
(August 2011)

In remarks to the State Board of Education on August 9, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that he was preparing legislation to implement universal public school choice in Vermont. "I've always been a proponent of schoolchoice," he said, to the surprise of veteran school choice partisans who hadn't noticed that tendency during Shumlin's years of legislative service.

It also surprised the Vermont-NEA teachers union, which the Governor had apparently failed to consult on the matter.

Shumlin observed that universal public school choice would remove the specter of tuition towns losing choice from merger discussions. He also stated that of course he opposed allowing parents to send their children to independent or parochial schools at public expense - but also said that he didn't intend to interfere with that opportunity in the 91 existing tuition towns.

Taking that all together, universal choice will expedite school district mergers, tuition towns won't lose the choice their parents have had since 1869, but no one will be able to choose independent schools. This is surely an improbable combination of conditions.

First, some recent history. In his 1998 state of the state message, Gov. Howard Dean made a strong plea for parental choice in education, provided of course that the parents choose a public school controlled by the Department of Education and organized by the Vermont-NEA.

Two years later the Democratic legislature enacted Act 150, the public choice bill for grades 9-12. It set up a bureaucratic inter-school exchange scheme heavy with restrictions. Vermonters for Better Education, the parental choice organization, noted that the bill was little more than a fig leaf to allow some legislators to hide from their constituents "the naked truth that they have no intention of ever supporting a real school choice program."

In its most recent (2008) annual report on the workings of the Act, the Department of Education found that less than one percent of all public high school students applied, and only about half of them actually enrolled in a public school of choice. The report concluded that "the small number of participants, both of those who applied and transferred and of those who applied but did not transfer, makes it impossible to draw specific or broad conclusions."

The reason that Act 150 flopped is that most of the students who want out of public schools don't want to go to other public schools. They want to go to independent schools, faith-based and secular, that offer the curriculum they want, teach to higher standards, maintain better discipline, avoid child medication excesses, steer clear of invasive behavioral questionnaires , reject politically correct indoctrination, and avoid a school climate often produced by combative teachers' unions.

Enacting "universal public school choice" will not prove attractive to most of those parents. If the condition of the forthcoming Shumlin plan is that parents can choose only among the public schools in a Regional Education District (authorized in 2010 but yet to be approved  by voters), then parents in the tuition towns that joined a RED would lose their existing choice of secular independent (non unionized) schools. That would seriously cripple some or all of those schools.  

If on the other hand the Shumlin plan would allow tuition dollars to follow any child to any public school in the state, some disfavored public schools would surely be driven to extinction. This is the main concern of the Vermont-NEA. It represents the teachers in potentially failing schools, who may find themselves out of jobs. Already the union is wailing about the possible loss of "locally funded, locally accountable and locally run schools".  Since Shumlin rarely puts all his cards face up on the table, it is inviting to try to discern the strategy developing in his fertile mind. It would be surprising to see him emerge as a principled friend of parental choice for the sake of the parents and children. 

One may be forgiven for believing that it's more likely that the governor's advocacy of universal public school choice will turn out to be part of a package designed to produce some other not immediately evident -or desirable - results.

Universal Preschooling: The Liberal Grand Slam
(October 2010)               

“Universal access to early education” has become a major liberal campaign promise this year. This goal, if achieved, will culminate a ten year campaign by large businesses, child advocacy groups, the teachers union, and social service agencies to put the state in charge of the lives of all 3- and 4-year olds not already so favored.           

Sen. Peter Shumlin states the case for universal early education thus: “It will provide our children with the tools they need to succeed in school and as adults. Children enrolled in early education score higher in math and reading and are more likely to get jobs and become successful, productive members of society. Universal access to pre-K education will go a long way towards erasing the achievement gap for low socioeconomic students and students who learn differently, and put all of our children on a more level playing field. In fact, for every dollar spent on early childhood education, there is a 7 to 16 dollar return.”           

Almost every part of this oft-repeated mantra is open to serious challenge, if not downright wrong.           

The first sentence appears to say that the $1.5 billion a year Vermont taxpayers are spending now on public education is failing to provide our children with the tools they need to succeed in school as adults: they are failing for want of universal preschools. Strangely, this assertion is repeated by people – the educrats – who in the same breath tell us how outstanding Vermont’s public schools are.           

The second sentence declares that preschooled 5 year olds exhibit higher cognitive skills than children not preschooled, and are more likely to get jobs later in life. This is obviously based on the much-debated Perry Preschool study in Ypsilanti, Michigan between 1962 and 1965. But the Perry study “treatment group” dealt with only 58 (!) poor minority children, not randomly chosen, with IQs between 70 and 85.            

Further, the Perry kids had to have parents at home during school hours so the highly trained teacher-researchers could make regular home visits.    And the reported $7.16 in benefits from every $1 invested (according to the president of the sponsoring foundation) was based on such facts as by age 19 only 33% had dropped out of high school, only 31% had been arrested, and only 17 of the 25 girls had gotten pregnant. 

This tells us nothing about the value of spending millions of tax dollars in preschool programs for the full population of Vermont 3- and 4- year olds. A 2003 Georgia State University review of Georgia’s decade of universal preschooling (63,000 4-year olds, $1.15 billion) regretfully concluded that it had made little or no difference in educational achievement.           

Closing the disadvantaged achievement gap appeals to the generous liberal mind, but universal preschool spreads the available funds over the ten percent of the population that can benefit from more intensive early assistance, and the ninety percent for whom it won’t make any difference.           

Amy Wilkins was a leader of the successful 2002 initiative campaign to mandate universal pre-K in Florida. Three years later she wrote, ruefully, that subsequent developments “strongly suggest that a universal strategy may not be the most effective way to improve and expand pre-K services for youngsters who need them most.” To put it bluntly, the Florida programs wasted millions of tax dollars on low-value services for ordinary children, while shortchanging the poor and minority kids who could have used help.

Then there is the startling claim of the “7 to 16 dollar return” for each tax dollar “invested” in universal pre-K. The $7 claim apparently comes from the sponsor of the Perry experiment. The $16 claim comes from another analysis of the Perry experiment (Rolnick & Grunewald, 2003). What these authors actually said was that the real internal rate of return at a three percent discount rate was 16% (not 16 for 1). Most of this figure derives from supposed benefits to society: the 58 Perry kids were “less disruptive in class later on, and went on to commit fewer crimes.”           

There are idealistic Vermonters who really believe that universal preschool will produce these amazing returns, for the kids, for society, and for taxpayers. From a more hard nosed perspective, it seems clear that the primary motivating force behind the universal pre-K movement is the enthusiasm of the public education industry to get its hands on another two year’s supply of our children, and send yet another large bill to taxpayers.

This is in turn motivated by the fact that Vermont’s K-12 population is declining. Residential property tax pressure is forcing school districts to reduce cost per pupil. Cost per pupil can be reduced either by reducing the numerator (fewer dues-paying union teachers teaching larger classes), or by increasing the denominator (pulling thousands of 3- and 4-year olds into universal preschools). Guess which one the union prefers.

The appearance of  “free” public preschools will either slash the customer base of the 350 private child care businesses, or force those businesses into a master-slave contract with the school district. Add that fact, and the proposal becomes a political grand slam for liberals seeking public office.

Unless, of course, the taxpayers and parents catch on.

The Vicious Acts of 2010
(August 2010)    
      

For years afterward it was called "The Vicious Act of '92". Act 20 of 1892 decreed the consolidation of the manifold tiny school districts within most towns into a single town district. At one stroke it reduced Vermont's 2,214 school districts by almost 90%. 
This was, its critics charged, the death of "local control" of public education - "local" meaning the neighborhood around a school. Eventually the passions of 1892 faded, and citizens came to associate "local control" with the town school district, where it remained for a century.

The current assault on local control began in 1997, when a liberal legislature enacted Act 60 at the direction of a Supreme Court informed by bogus history and exulting in what even a liberal legal critic described as "a raw exercise of judicial power."          

The most revolutionary and controversial of Act 60's provisions was its requirement that all revenues raised locally be shipped to Montpelier, where they would be mixed with state revenues, shifted about, and returned to districts to meet the Court's mandate of "substantially equal access to tax resources."          

That broke the historic link between the amount voted by local taxpayers to operate their schools, and the amount of taxes collected for public education. After Act 68 of 2003, school districts where voters chose to spend more than a dollar amount per equalized pupil set by the legislature (currently $8544) would suffer a corresponding increase in their legislatively-determined residential education property tax rate (currently .86%). This was a shrewd attempt to maintain some linkage between spending and taxation, but most voters have long since given up trying to understand how the system works.          

The non-financial provisions of Act 60 were every bit as subversive of local control. For years Commissioners of Education had asked for more control over public schools, but the legislature was largely unwilling to grant their pleas. Schools districts were habituated to teacher certification, union bargaining, financial and educational reporting, and civil rights and special education rules. But Act 60 decreed that the Department could enforce "school quality standards", and "standards regulating conditions, practices and resources". It even gained the power - not yet used - to put a school into receivership.          

This year saw another wave of attacks on what was left of "local control". The legislature passed a bill to encourage voluntary school district consolidation into "Regional Education Districts". It's perfectly clear to everyone, and especially to the educrats who promoted it, that over time the multitown REDs will be controlled by the Department and the teachers' union, not by local voters and taxpayers. The REDs will become the equivalent of multitown waste management districts.          

The second step, presaged by Gov. Douglas' 2010 state of the state message, will be Departmental control over pupil-teacher ratios. The legislature declined to act on that recommendation, but spending pressure on the Education Fund will likely provide the votes to adopt it within a year or two.          

The third step came with Challenge for Change. This much-touted process for achieving spending savings assigned a $23 million cost reduction goal to the Department of Education. But the Commissioner does not have the power to force voters of school districts to reduce their budgets to meet that goal. The most he can do is contrive district by district reduction targets, and write urgent letters pleading with the school boards to plead with the voters to meet his target. This he did on August 4.     

Many districts may well achieve an average of 2.34% in spending reduction this year. Over time, however, the Commissioner will acquire the power, either by statute or by force of his office, to tell school districts the most that their schools can spend.          

As these steps play out, the Commissioner will issue orders to its Regional Education Districts, capping their pupil-teacher ratios and instructing them on how much they are allowed to spend.          

Just as "local control" of subdistrict schools went out with the Vicious Act of '92, "local control" as it existed prior to 1997 will soon give way to one of two outcomes: either complete state control, or parental control. The former is the French model, with its nationwide curriculum and all-powerful Ministry of Education.           

The latter would decentralize "local" down to the family level: empowered parents would choose the educational program that they believe is best for their children, and providers would compete to please them as customers, not subjects.

Unifying School Choice Out of Existence
(March 2010)

With education finance increasingly under state control and legislators seeking ways to curb state spending to avoid enormous  deficits, the issue of school district regionalization is once again on center stage in the State House.

The House Education Committee has reported a clever bill (H.782) that offers incentives for neighboring school districts to voluntarily form Unified Union School Districts (UUSDs).

There are presently five unified districts: Waits River Valley, Blue Mountain, Miller's Run, Twinfield, and the newly formed Addison West. In a unified district there is one elected district school board, one residential property tax rate, and one electorate, replacing those of the component towns.

 For half a century the arguments for such regionalization have been to eliminate tiny inefficient districts, unify curriculum among schools feeding one high school, and easing the considerable supervisory burden. There is always the thought that this will result in taxpayer-friendly cost effectiveness, but even the Education Commissioner's Transformation Policy Commission did not dare to offer regionalization as a cost-saving measure. Why not? Because there is no evidence to believe that it will, and considerable evidence from other states that expanding bureaucratic and transportation costs quickly override modest savings.

A crucial issue in the regionalization debate is the prospect for parental choice. Commissioner Vilaseca says that pupils in the new larger districts could choose any public school in the district, instead of being assigned to the public school in their town of residence. That's good.

 But what of the pupils in the present 90 tuition towns, where parents have the choice of any approved non-sectarian public or independent school, in or out of the state? Would those pupils now be stuck with the limited choices among public schools within the unified districts?
|
The House bill attempts to deal with this by providing that the voters within the new unified district could vote to allow such choice for the new district's pupils - or not.  If the unified district's plan denied the choices of the current tuition town pupils to attend public or approved independent schools, the unified district would have to include a "process" to pay tuition to the school chosen by the parents, even if the UUSD's policies did not allow tuition payments to that school.

This appears to be a reasonable example of "local control". In operation, it is highly likely to be a lingering death sentence for parental choice in the present tuition towns.

Consider a hypothetical five town unified district, centered on a large town and its public K-12 system. The district's voters vote on whether to allow expanded choice. If pupils exit the UUSD, its cost per pupil will likely be higher, and thus the residential property tax rate throughout the five-town district will be higher.

Thus voters concerned about property taxes - especially those without children under 18 - are likely to vote not to allow any pupils to escape the UUSD's schools. So will everyone working in and for those public schools. Their interest is in preserving a monopoly.

Ah, but the bill says that if the UUSD's plan would reduce choices for current tuition town pupils, the UUSD must create a "process" for paying tuition for pupils who are enrolled in non-district schools at the time of merger. (It disturbingly does not say "shall pay" - only "shall include a process".)

Thus tuition town pupils as of the date of unification would be allowed to continue at their current choice of school until they graduate. If they graduate from an independent K-8 school and want to go on to an independent high school, tough luck. If a pupil is beginning school next year, it will be public school only.

The upshot of this "local control" provision is that unified district voters are unlikely to approve present tuition town choice at the risk of fewer public school pupils and higher property tax rates. If they make that decision, then the pupils currently enjoying tuition town choice can continue until they finish the school where they are enrolled, and then they will have to attend a public school within the district.

The likely result is that by the eighth year after unification, no pupil in the unified district will have a choice of anything but a public school, or publicly-designated independent high school, within the unified district.

This proposal, voluntary and democratic as it seems, may not have been designed to extinguish parental choice in Vermont. Or maybe it was. Whatever the motivation, it will over a decade or so almost certainly produce that baneful and reactionary result.

Three Prescriptions for Vermont Education
(January 2010)

In the past six weeks three major reports have appeared on the future of Vermont education. One, by far the least valuable, was produced by a legislative committee created by politicians. The second came from a commission created by education professionals assembled by the State Board of Education. The third and far most interesting came from a private sector commission that, unlike the first two, actually discovered a way to bend down the education spending curve for the benefit both of students and taxpayers.

The 15-member legislative committee – twelve of them legislators or appointed by legislators - met six times over six months to “examine potential improvements to the structure and funding of the Vermont educational system in light of the state’s limited financial resources.” It produced a five-page report recommending a handful of intricate supervisory changes, but totally ignoring the funding question. File this one under “tax dollars wasted”.

The State Board of Education’s 15-member “Transformation Policy Commission” was quite a bit more prolific. Its 114-page report focuses on educational practice, governance structure, standards, and the educational challenges of the 21st Century.

It avers that “academic knowledge and skills must be fewer, higher, and deeper”, whatever, that may mean, and opposes “high stakes testing” (trouble!)  in favor of “performance assessments over time” (a favorite theme of the teachers union). It supports more flexibility, partnerships, teacher quality, and accountability, and more dual enrollment in high school and college. It proposes that the Department mandate the rapid installation in all Vermont schools of “multi-age learning communities” presided over by “small interdisciplinary groups of teachers” in place of classes based on age.

The Commission report criticizes imposing “mandatory school inputs with little attention paid to practices and outcomes”. This point has been made since 1970, but generations of state boards and commissioners have rarely relaxed their grip on public school prescribed inputs and practices.

The Commission explicitly avoided any consideration of taxpayer costs, other than offering the rather disturbing maxim that “education policy should drive funding mechanisms rather than funding mechanisms driving education policy.” This appears to mean that the educational insiders will impose what they think is best for other people’s children, and the taxpayers should be grateful to pay the bill.

The Commission’s most controversial command and control proposal is its urgent appeal to allow the commissioner, with the advice of one of the many new commissions the report would create, to establish by decree 13 to 20 “regional education districts”. The report observes that this “might not greatly reduce costs or administrative positions” (surely true), but it’s necessary to expose pupils to “larger learning opportunities”. This argument was a key point of Commissioner Scribner’s ill-fated “Vermont Design for Education” in 1969. The disruptive ideas of choice and competition are notably absent.

It’s clear that the Commission, composed of education “stakeholders”, believes that the educational establishment knows better than anybody else what children ought to learn, how their education should be delivered, and how their behemoth of a “system” should be structured. The report is an affirmation of the proposition that the best and brightest deserve to be firmly in command at the top of the pyramid, presiding over commissions, experts, and commissars, and in the last exigency wielding the Big Stick.

In dramatic contrast, the Ethan Allen Institute-sponsored Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value says that we should simply scrap the ever-enlarging, ever-centralizing, bureaucrat-intensive, overpriced, underperforming, government monopoly school “system”.

The report’s policy recommendations are “based on the idea that the great majority of parents and children have the capacity to identify the kind of education most suitable to their children’s needs and preferences, and that public financial support should flow not through overgrown and nonproductive bureaucracies, but directly through the consumers to a wide range of educational providers, some public, some private, that attract revenues by offering a product that their customers want.”

This Commission believes that empowered parents, consumer choice, and provider competition is the only recipe that holds any promise of bending down the education spending curve, now cresting over $15,000 per pupil.

And that’s exactly what parents and children want. A 2009 Friedman Foundation poll of over a thousand Vermonters found that “89 percent prefer choosing a school for their child among options that include private schools, charter schools, virtual schools and homeschooling.”

There’s also an economic bonus: If only twenty percent of this year’s public school pupils opted to depart for the type of education they prefer, at a cost of roughly half of public school costs, taxpayers would save $81 million.

At least one of the three reports got it right.
 

Rebalancing Education Cost and Value
(December 2009)


How can Vermonters get equal or better educational outcomes for their children, with fewer taxpayer dollars?

That intriguing question has rarely if ever been squarely posed. A State Board of Education's policy commission is laboring to produce "transformation" policies, with no attention to what those policies might cost taxpayers.

A legislatively-created committee (a majority of which are teacher union-dependent) is currently trying to find an affordable way to finance the current system of education. It's not unreasonable to suspect that it will recommend offloading current education expenses (notably health insurance) onto some other taxpayer account, plus creating a new mega-organization in the name of (supposed) "greater efficiencies in delivery."

A completely different approach is that of the Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value. This private sector commission, created by the Ethan Allen Institute, consists of 15 former superintendents, principals, school board and Senate education committee members, and PhDs. Its chair is Chris Robbins, who just completed a six year term on the State Board of Education and is also the current Chair of VSAC.

In his foreword to the report, Robbins says "The fundamental premise of this report is that a policy of creating an ever-enlarging 'system', directed from the top down, populated with thousands of teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats, controlling the annual expenditure of $1,450 million taxpayer dollars, jealously protective of the benefits enjoyed by the people employed in the 'system', and dismissive of the abilities and preferences of parents and children, is a policy headed off in a totally wrong direction."

"Such a policy will, ultimately, and despite the best intentions of many persons within that system, shortchange our students, defeat the preferences of many parents, and spend ever escalating amounts of taxpayer dollars for little or no added educational benefit."

"Instead of enlarging and fortifying the "system", we recommend deconstructing the current 'system" and rebuilding it based on the needs and desires of parents and students."

The new report, entitled Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars, includes a detailed economic analysis of today's public education system. That analysis concludes that "it is very clear than Vermonters - taxpayers and parents - are not getting their money's worth from our very high per pupil education spending. It is also clear that this spending trend is unsustainable."

The Commission believes that "the great majority of parents and children have the capacity to identify the kind of education most suitable to their children's needs and preferences, and that public financial support for education should flow not through overgrown and nonproductive bureaucracies, but directly through the consumers to a wide array of educational providers, some public, some private, that attract revenues by offering a product that their customers want."

The Commission recommends giving tuition certificates to students instead of payments to schools, as is now done in 90 Vermont tuition towns. It advocates creation of charter schools, now in operation in forty other states, and more virtual schooling. It supports tax credits for Student Tuition Organizations (to fund scholarships to faith-based schools), and Education Freedom Districts (where voters could create their own education models).

The Commission also recommends that compliance with the Federal special education mandate be made a responsibility of the State Department of Education. It would contract with appropriate providers, including public schools, for free and appropriate services for eligible students, and defend against lawsuits.

A table in the report suggests that if parents chose to send only 20 percent of today's public school children to independent schools and other educational programs costing typically half the per pupil cost of comparable public schools, education spending would decrease by $81 million a year.

A 2008 Friedman Foundation poll revealed that 89% of Vermont voters favored independent, charter, virtual or home schooling over traditional public schools. If parents acted on those preferences, the savings to taxpayers could be as much as three times that amount.
Moving to a competition and choice model, the report says, "will stimulate a vibrant, dynamic educational marketplace that will help our children acquire the skills they need to flourish in the 21st century, and put Vermont on the nation's map as a hotbed of imagination, innovation, and achievement."

Such a shift would, of course, force many of our near-monopoly public schools to reshape their policies and programs, to keep on attracting revenue-paying students. This will stimulate furious opposition from the least imaginative and most security-conscious public school officials, plus the Vermont-NEA teachers union.

That's understandable. But most parents and taxpayers probably believe that they - as well as our schoolchildren - will benefit more from dynamic 21st century competition and choice in education, than paying ever more to keep the 20th century monopoly system alive.

Promoting Diversity in Education
(August 2009)

Florida has found a way to save $31 million by making 21,493 elementary  and secondary students very happy. It’s called the Corporate Income Tax Credit  Scholarship program.

Under a Florida law enacted in 2001, corporations in that state can claim  a 100% tax credit for their donations to any of three statewide student tuition  organizations (STOs). The tax credit claimed is limited to 75% of the  corporation’s income tax liability, and the total amount of the credits is  capped at $118 million for 2009.

From the corporate contributions, the STOs offer scholarships of as much  as $3950 per year to students from families earning less than 200% of the  Federal poverty level. The scholarships may be used at either public or  independent schools, including faith-based schools. The legislature’s Office of  Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated that the state  gains $1.49 for every dollar given up in tax credits.

Pennsylvania enacted its successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit at  the same time as Florida. Arizona followed suit in 2006. Indiana’s new program  begins this fall. Several states “ including Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, and  Minnesota “ offer individual education tax credits.

For the past ten years Vermont has had a functioning STO called Vermont  SOS “ Student Opportunity Scholarships. It has raised and spent $1.8 million to  provide scholarships to low income students, but it is now unable to accept any  new applicants.

Would a corporate tax credit scholarship program be good  for Vermont?

It would enable thousands more students to attend schools whose  philosophy and values are more in keeping with their parents’ wishes, or whose  programs are tailored to better serve the students’ needs. A scholarship of just  $4,000 would dramatically increase independent school  attendance.

It would provide a fiscal shot in the arm to faith-based schools - Catholic, evangelical, and Jewish - and secular independent schools like the  Waldorf schools, Long Trail School, and Vermont Academy. David Bisson of Barre,  until recently the chair of the Vermont Catholic school board, says that with  modest scholarship assistance all of Vermont’s Catholic schools would be  completely full. As it is, many faith-based schools are struggling to survive,  and the weakest ones are consolidating or disappearing every year. Not  good.

The corporate tax credit program avoids running afoul of the compelled  support clause of the Vermont Constitution, that the Supreme Court misconstrued  to prevent the Chittenden school district from tuitioning its high schoolers to  Rutland’s Mt. St. Joseph Academy. The STOs give privately-financed scholarships  directly to families who select the schools. This is quite different from school  district tuition payments of taxpayer funds to faith-based schools.

An important question, as in all matters educational, is the effect such  a program would have on educational finances, and ultimately residential  property taxes.

Unlike Florida and most other states, where the state makes state aid  payment to local school districts, Vermont has since 1997 centralized its  educational finance through Act 60 and Act 68. Therefore it’s not possible to  calculate that the state’s savings in state aid payments would outweigh the  state’s loss in corporate tax revenues.

Suppose  100 Vermont students accepted scholarships and departed an uncongenial public  school district for independent schools. Unless the school district shrank its  operating costs correspondingly, its cost per equalized pupil would climb. That  would mean that the residential property tax rate facing its taxpayers would  rise.

But public school districts are not very good at managing  shrinkage. Their leaders are reluctant to lay off teachers and aides or close  entire schools. They won’t do it unless the threat of budget rejection forces  them into it.

If the schools won’t shrink, taxpayers have an incentive  to attract more students into their presently overbuilt and overstaffed public  schools, to keep the cost per pupil down and thus the residential tax rate down.  Expanding the independent school scholarship opportunity, however beneficial it  might be for the students, would run counter to that  strategy.

Another solution, obvious to any similar business  enterprise but rarely perceived by public school administrators, is to attract  entire independent schools and their students into leased space in the public  school building. Then the newcomers would produce new revenue from their  classroom use and the common use of cafeteria, drama, music, and athletic  facilities, while retaining the benefits of their independent  school.

The corporate tax credit scholarship will definitely be  good for educational diversity and parental choice. It will be very good for  kids. By creating new opportunities, it will stimulate the best public schools  to practice cost-effective creative adaptation. The more incentives for that,  the better.

Education Costs and Results
June 2008

Each year the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)publishes a thick document ranking the states on the academic achievement of their public school pupils. Here’s the good news: Vermont ranked number 3 overall. But before we go out to celebrate, it’s worth taking a closer look at the top five states.

Minnesota led the nation at number one. Perhaps the earliest state to embark on post-WWII educational innovation, the reform-minded Gopher State is the birthplace of public school choice (1980s) and the charter school movement (1991). In 1997 its Republican Governor and Democratic-controlled legislature adopted a bipartisan package of family tax credits and deductions for both public and private educational expenses.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are given to a sample of 4th, and 8th grade students in all 50 states. In 2006-07 Minnesota students ranked second in 8th grade math, fifth in 4th grade math, eighth in 8th grade reading, and twelfth in 4th grade reading.

Massachusetts, long an educational leader, ranked first in reading and math in both 4th and 8th grades, but because the weighting formula involved other factors, it finished second in the rankings. Vermont at number three scored from first through sixth on all four reading and math scores. Number four New Hampshire did almost the same. Number five South Dakota was a larger notch further back.

It should be noted that the ranking distributions were very closely spaced. For instance, Massachusetts’ first place in eighth grade reading (273) was only 12 points (half a percent) above the national average (261).

Only 42 percent of its students in Vermont’s best category, eighth grade reading, scored “proficient” or above. Nationally, the figure was 29 percent. One has to conclude that either the “proficient” standard is unreasonably high, or America’s kids aren’t getting much proficiency from their education.

The national average expenditure per pupil for 2006-07 was $9,295. Minnesota spent $9,366, less than one percent above the national average. Massachusetts spent $12,566, 35% above. Vermont (4th highest in the nation) spent $13,102, 41% above. New Hampshire spent $10,562, 14% above. South Dakota spent $8,077, 13% below.

The most glaring reason for Vermont’s high spending is its low pupil/teacher ratio. Vermont had led the nation in this category since 1995, but dropped to second place when Rhode Island sharply increased its ratio in the past few years. Vermont’s ratio of 10.9 pupils per teacher was 28% below the national average of 15.2. New Hampshire ranked tenth lowest at 13.2.

There are two reasons for Vermont’s low ratio. One is a large number of small rural schools with necessarily small classes. The other is the profusion of teachers and aides, many of the latter put into the classroom to manage mainstreamed special education pupils.

Vermont’s high spending is not due to high teachers salaries. At $35,771 on the average, Vermont salaries are 43rd in the nation. However Vermont teachers get very generous (tax free) benefits.

Policy makers and legislators concerned with Vermont’s comparatively good results accompanied by very high expenditures might adopt an ambitious goal like this: “Vermont taxpayers will pay what it takes to keep Vermont pupils in the top ten in the four NAEP categories, and over 50% of our 4th and 8th graders will score “proficient” or above in both reading and math.” (No state has ever achieved this latter benchmark.)

Once such an output goal has been set, the question is then how to achieve those results most efficiently. This brings in questions of school sizes, class sizes, curriculum, teaching methods, special education intensity, teacher compensation packages, governance, and more. It also raises the question of who intervenes when the students in a school are doing poorly.

The obvious answer to this touchy political question is the Florida A+ answer. If the kids at your kid’s school fail to achieve a specified proficiency level two years in a row, you can take your kid and a voucher for $10,000 and find a public or independent school that provably does a better job. (The Florida A+ program is however overly complicated and currently under court-ordered suspension due to its inclusion of faith-based independent schools.)

With that standard and the A+ option, Vermont would soon meet its output goal. Creative programs would spring up all over the place to do what the principals and teachers at poorly performing public schools are unwilling or unable to do.

But if our state’s educational goal is to keep on spending $14,000 per pupil to pay the Vermont-NEA teaching corps to do what they like to do for another year, regardless of outcomes, we don’t have to make any changes - just keep paying.

Vermont’s New 15-year School System
May 2007

In his state of the state message in January 2006, Gov. Jim Douglas observed that the 2005 legislature “added a provision into the final budget bill that I fear will lead to an unacceptable outcome: adding two more pre-kindergarten grades to the already stressed K-12 education system and putting taxpayers on the hook to fund it.” He asked the legislature “to reconsider the decision to further increase the cost of education and the growing tax bills that accompany those costs.”

On June 1 Gov. Douglas signed H.534, Strangely, this bill will add two more pre-kindergarten grades to the already stressed K-12 education system, and put taxpayers on the hook to fund it. Welcome to the new 15-year public education system!

The 2007 preschool bill was the product of four years of intense advocacy by persons and organizations that stand to benefit from the expansion of the public school system. It was of no concern to them that the thorough ten-year study of Georgia’s pioneering universal preschool program showed zero educational benefits.

Since 1987 school districts have been authorized to operate preschools, and a few did, at local expense. But the Brigham decision and Act 60 ended the era of “local expense”. Post-Act 60, it became necessary to get the Education Fund to pay for local preschools. For the past four years the legislature proved to be unable to make the statutory change to make this legal. Nonetheless, the Department of Education aggressively encouraged districts to start new preschools, legal or not, until by this month some 130 had done so.

The new bill makes tapping the Education Fund to pay for preschools legal. It also pretends to “cap” preschool spending by allowing districts to charge the cost of approximately half of its eligible 3- and 4- year olds to the Education Fund. This provided the fig leaf that apparently won the Governor’s signature.

Let’s look at how this “cap” will work. Say that a school district, using the three-part formula in the bill, arrives at 100 preschool students chargeable to the Education Fund. Ten of them are EEE-qualified, and thus automatically chargeable. But there are 150 kids who want the remaining 90 slots. Who gets them?

The district can’t pay for the extra 60 with its “own money”. Since Brigham, school districts no longer have their “own money.” Perhaps it can raise private funds to pay the extra quarter-million dollars needed each year. Most likely not.

Perhaps (the law is not clear) the district could take the Education Fund money for 90 kids and spread it over all 150, requiring the parents of all 150 to pay the difference in tuition. This also seems unlikely. So the district will have to run a lottery: 150 kids for 90 slots. And somewhere the bank president’s son will win and the quickstop clerk’s daughter will lose.

Unfair! By 2010, when the Department is charged to report on this question, there will be irresistible pressure to scrap the “cap”. That’s the point where Vermont will have its 15-year public school system.

The new bill allows independent preschools to collaborate with school districts to offer early education programs. But the government will determine who is ”qualified” to supervise the independent programs, and the school district holds the pursestrings.

Since the Vermont-NEA and the school district will prefer to have kids in (unionized) public preschools rather than having to deal with (non-union) independent schools, the independent preschools will either be swallowed up in the public school system, or left to try to stay in business serving 1- and 2-year olds.

The advocates claim the bill will “control costs”. Without the “cap” in this bill, they say, every district could offer preschool to their 3- and 4-year olds, and that would cause a much larger drain on the Education Fund. They estimate that the bill will cost an additional $14 million a year. This is a far larger cost than the $9 million a year that the legislature guesstimates will be saved by its feeble “Think Twice” split-vote plan due in 2010.

But all that begs the question. There is no statutory authorization now for the Education Fund to pay any preschool bills. This bill now provides it. And it’s very hard to see how the vaunted “cap” can possibly survive past 2010.

Cost control? The legislature gave school districts the key to the cash register, and egged on by the advocates and the Department, you can bet they’ll use it. The likely result will be no identifiable educational benefits, universal taxpayer-funded day care, severe pressure on independent day care and early education providers, and no true parental choice. That’s certainly not a victory for anybody’s Agenda of Affordability.

The Expensive Future of Early Education
January 2007

Lacking the votes to forthrightly authorize two more grades of public school before kindergarten, and mindful of taxpayer reaction in an election year, the 2006 legislature punted the preschool issue to a summer study committee. Now that committee, chaired by Rep. Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport), is about to deliver its report to the new legislature.

Six of the nine members have been conspicuous advocates for expanding to universal pre-K. Three of them, Sens. Jim Condos (D-Chittenden) Don Collins (D-Franklin), and Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans), were the principal backers of Senate U-pre-K bills that died in the last two legislatures. Of the 34 Vermonters who testified before the committee, at least 33 were ardent backers of universal preschooling.

The early education research findings described in the committee’s draft report were provided by Dr. Jim Squires, hired by the Department of Education to promote more preschooling. One well-qualified Vermont critic of U-pre-K research was invited to make a presentation, but then abruptly disinvited when vice chair Condos learned of it.

So Vermonters skeptical of the alleged benefits of U-pre-K and concerned about its high costs might reasonably expect that its report would be little more than a passionate call for public school expansion, more unionized teachers, snuffing out private day care providers, and of course more taxpayer spending. Actually, it’s better than that.

First, it clearly recommends that the legislature put a firm legal footing on the current school district practice of paying for U-pre-K out of Education Fund moneys. The current inclusion of U-pre-K pupils in Act 60’s weighted-cost-per-pupil calculation (that determines residential property tax rates) results from a Departmental rule that extralegally amends the education statutes. To set this right, the legislators will actually have to vote on the record. Then, for the first time, their constituents can find out who voted to open the door to as much as $70 million a year in Education Fund spending.

Second, the report recommends capping the number of preschool children that school districts can pay for. All pre-special education children would be included, then children “at risk” of future school failure, then “regular” 3- and 4- year olds up to the cap. This is not without some problems, but it does recognize that the taxpayers can’t keep on paying increasingly higher bills for every nice thing that the educational establishment thinks up. It's not likely, however, that any such cap will long withstand pressure from school districts eager to keep on expanding.

Third, the report recognizes the value of “qualified” private preschool providers. On the down side, the process of “qualifying” will remain under the control of the educational establishment. That will ensure that the private providers must dance to the government’s tune and comply with possibly inflated “quality” standards, or go out of business.

Fourth, parents will not get to choose among qualified providers. They may, however, plead to their school board to contract with the preschool provider the parents favor. Enlightened school boards may agree, but many will want to retain every revenue-producing child for their own programs. It’s not mentioned in the report, but church-sponsored preschools with moral and religious content need not apply, whatever their quality.

On the troublesome side, the report emphasizes the need to combine all “young children” programs into one grand “integrated” structure. For three years a Building Bright Futures Council has been working quietly to design this giant “public-private partnership”. Run by a non-governmental board, this mega-nonprofit will take control of 300 million taxpayer dollars each year, and distribute them through twelve regional daycare-preschool-Medicaid czars. The debate over that very big and controversial idea will come in the near future.

The best recommendation from the U-pre-K committee would have been this: the state should give vouchers to parents of children with disabilities or objectively at risk of school failure, to pay for the public or private early education program the parents choose as best suited to their child.

The parents of all other “regular” children, who by third grade will show little or no identifiable educational benefit from having attended a preschool program, would be expected to raise their children to kindergarten age without governmental intrusion and expenditure.

After all, the draft report itself declares that “Families have the primary responsibility and right to nurture and educate their child.”

One can imagine the horror that such a proposal would evoke among this or any current legislative committee. But aside from helping the poor, dysfunctional, and unusually needy, Big Momma government is not likely to do well for our next generation, nor are taxpayers likely to be content to finance ever-larger programs thought up by the educational establishment “for the children”.

More Money for More Schooling?
September 2006

Thwarted for three years in their efforts to push universal preschooling through the legislature and the State Board of Education, the advocates of that proposal are now focusing their attention on a study committee that is meeting in the Capitol.

The legislature hatched the study committee late in the 2006 session, when it became apparent that even liberal legislators were nervous about voting in an election year to expand our $1.2 billion education system by adding two more grades for 3- and 4-year olds. Act 186 (which became law without the Governor's signature) created a nine-member study committee - three senators, three Representatives, two commissioners (Education, Children and Families) and one business person - chaired by Rep. Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport).

In addition to fact-finding, the committee is charged with investigating the hoped-for effects of universal pre-K education, the likely costs to the taxpayers of providing it; and "whether all groups of prekindergarten children benefit from an inclusionary educational environment."

This last topic, in plain English, is the delicate question as to whether spreading preschool funding over the entire 3- and 4-year old population will result in shortchanging the most needy and at-risk children.

The preschool advocates are lining up to promote their cause before the committee. They fervently believe that expanding the state's control over more children at ever-younger ages is inevitably a good thing that taxpayers ought to be pleased to support.

This issue has unfortunately become shrouded in lots of mythology. Here are some hard questions that a skeptic ought to ask of the committee:

1. Preschool programs offer the benefits of day care - safe custody, socialization, directed activity. Is there any reason to believe that "preschooling" produces more identifiable educational results than well-run day care centers, by the time the children enter kindergarten? By the time they enter third grade?

2. If there are no identifiable educational benefits by the time the children have reached third grade, why should the taxpayers be asked to pay for "preschools"? Isn't this just a subsidized day care program for rich and poor alike?

3. How much in the way of tax dollars does it take to give preschooled children an identifiable educational benefit four years later, compared to children who have attended only K-3? Is that benefit worth that taxpayer investment?

4. If preschools for at-risk children help them close the achievement gap with their more favored peers, why won't universal preschool maintain that gap indefinitely?

5. Is there any identifiable difference in child educational achievement when the preschools are directed by credentialed teachers, as opposed to licensed day care providers? If there is no identifiable difference, why should taxpayers be asked to pay for the more expensive credentialed teachers?

6. Is it not clear that taxpayer-financed "free" universal preschool for 3- and 4- year olds will destroy the private day care industry, which cannot survive by serving only one and two year olds? What options will working parents then have for day care for their younger children?

7. If private day care centers are drawn into a "collaborative" controlled by public school system, will the public school system not force higher teacher credentialing regulations on the operators and staff of the day care centers? Will this result in any identifiable improvement for the children, or will it only replace day care operators with far more costly (and unionized) public school teachers?

8. Once there are "free" universal government-run or controlled preschools, what will become of preschool programs currently operated by religious bodies, which are not eligible to receive Education Fund money?

9. In a government preschool system, will parents have any choice of preschools, or will they have to send their children only to designated public schools or to programs included in a public school-dominated "collaborative"?

10. If every 3- and 4-year old in the state took part in a full day preschool (20 hours a week) costing as much as kindergarten, what would be the annual cost to the Education Fund? What would be the effect on residential property tax rates?

In a year when "affordability" of Vermont to its people has become a major concern, the committee will have to be very persuasive in justifying the universal preschools' "potentially immense" costs (as described by Finance and Management Commissioner James Reardon).

If the educational benefits for most "ordinary" (not at-risk) children are only fuzzy and subjective (such as "improved readiness for kindergarten"), and if the benefits fade out after three or four years of public schooling, most taxpayers will come to the conclusion that financing two more grades in one of the nation's costliest public school systems is just not worth doing.

Answering the Vermont NEA Questionnaire
August 2006

It's election season, and the interest groups are sending out their questionnaires to candidates. Quite rightly, they want to know where candidates stand on the issues important to the group.

It's worth looking at the questionnaire sent out by the state's most powerful political action group, the 11,500- member Vermont-NEA teachers union. It focuses on five issues of interest to the union. For each one, it offers a carefully argued paragraph giving the union's position, and then asks candidates to agree, disagree, or reply "don't know".

The union's leading issue is its distaste for the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, called NCLB. This is the George W. Bush-Teddy Kennedy concoction that requires public schools to get results (measured by what?) or suffer penalties up to and even including the ultimate horror for the union, giving school choice to parents of kids in failing schools.

One might well oppose NCLB on the grounds that the constitution does not give the Federal government power to meddle in public education. The NEA, long enthusiastic for federal government intrusion into education, does not oppose NCLB on that ground. The union bases its opposition on its belief that the feds aren't giving the states enough money to comply with the act's burdensome regulations.

More importantly, the union also opposes NCLB because the union has always loathed anything designed to enforce accountability for results. Thus the Vermont-NEA's position is that the foolish pursuit of meaningless "results" interferes with what teachers want to do in their classrooms, and having pupils take tests "reduces the time available for class discussion."

Candidates content to turn $1.2 billion over to Vermont's public schools without asking much in the way of accountability will rate high on the Vermont-NEA scorecard.

Issue Two is school choice. The union is concerned that with parental choice, parents might choose to move their kids out of low-performing and dysfunctional schools to schools where their kids would get a better education, thereby depriving the low-performing and dysfunctional schools of "resources" and even bringing about their disappearance. Note: It's not about kids getting an education; it's about protecting dysfunctional schools and their unionized work forces.

Issue Three is teacher pensions and health benefits. The teachers retirement fund's unfunded liability started this year at $315 million, not counting millions more in unfunded promises for the health care coverage for retired teachers. Despite significant improvements made by the 2006 legislature, the union rightly wants stronger assurances that those promises will be kept.

Issue Four is health care. The union reiterates its support for taxpayer financed single payer health care "as a right of citizenship", without specifying just where this "right" comes from. The questionnaire neglects to mention that during debate over just this proposal in 2005, the Vermont-NEA made it clear to legislators that its members' own gold-plated health insurance coverage would have to be preserved under a single payer system, no matter what benefit the government decided to specify for ordinary mortals. (Fortunately, the single payer effort collapsed in the face of a Douglas veto.)

Finally, the Vermont-NEA urges shifting union bargaining (called "professional negotiations") from local school boards to the supervisory union level. This, the union argues, will shrink the number of contract negotiations from around 180 to 63, while preserving "local control". Yeah, right.

Removing contract bargaining to the multi-town supervisory union level has been a long time goal of the union. Under this plan, the members of the multitown school boards are further removed from the voters, and thus less vulnerable to taxpayer resentment for giving away the store. More importantly, shifting contract bargaining to the supervisory union level would make it very difficult for hard-hit taxpayers to organize to defeat school budgets that are overly generous with teacher pay and benefits.

The union also invites candidates to pen a 75-word essay on "what should be done to continue building on the success of our public schools and our students?"

How about these 75 words: "Get Vermont out of NCLB, let schools adopt whatever academic standards they want, let parents choose the schools with the standards and performance that best meets their kids' needs, fully fund teacher retirement benefits and then convert the program to individually owned and managed accounts, assure retired teacher health insurance equivalent to private sector coverage, switch schools to consumer driven health plans instead of taxpayer-financed single-payer monstrosities, and let taxpayers vote to approve union contracts."

Better add some smelling salts when you mail that one back in.

The Perils of Consolidation
June 2006

Like the appearance of seventeen year locusts, the subject of education governance has again arrived on the public agenda. The instigator of a renewed dialog on this subject is Education Commissioner Richard Cate. His concern is spurred by his belief that the present public education structure is unwieldy, inefficient, and excessively costly, and falls short of producing the best possible educational outcomes.

The public education system for Vermont's 95,000 pupils consists of 284 school districts. Every town or city school district either has its own supervisory district (11, in the larger towns and cities), or belongs to one of 51 multi-town supervisory unions. Supervisory union board members are elected not by the voters, but by and from the local boards. Because the boards choose them indirectly, the one-man one-vote rule does not apply.

These supervisory union boards select the Superintendent who must meet state-prescribed qualifications. Originally, the superintendent was charged with the selection and training of principals and teachers. Since each town raised the property tax dollars to pay for its own schools, the supervisory union had no role in school finance.

Today - and especially since the enactment of Act 60 in 1997 - the superintendent's role is quite different. His or her main job is to see that the schools and districts comply with the ever-growing volume of state and federal education laws and regulations. Chief among these are those controlling school finance, assessment, and special education. The superintendent is the resident authority for citizens elected to school boards, who can hardly be expected to navigate the thicket of education laws and court decisions on their own.

The superintendent's job is powerful, exhausting, but well-paid. Though selected by local supervisory union boards, superintendents have increasingly become emissaries and agents of the state Department of Education.

In 1964 Gov. Phil Hoff proposed to convert some 60 supervisory unions districts into 24 administrative districts. The legislature and public dismissed the proposal out of hand. Twenty three years later, Gov. Kunin's commission on school governance, co-chaired by Hoff, proposed 65 unified districts, each with a K-12 system and a single board. That proposal aroused such an outcry that Gov. Kunin was forced to disavow it a week before it was to be made public. The fact that the report was ridiculously and dishonestly titled "Strengthening Local Control" didn't help its reception.

Commissioner Cate has now put on the table a similar proposal.There would be 63 unified school districts made up by combining current local districts. The state would make education payments to the new districts, not to the component towns.

The new district's board members would be elected by voters in the towns, but their votes on the board would be weighted to meet the one-man, one vote requirement. The new board would hire the superintendent, who would have full control over all public education in the district. Cate later added that parents would be able to choose among the public schools within each new, larger district.

The Cate proposal would solve the real problem of frazzled superintendents having to deal with as many as fourteen local school boards. It might - but would not necessarily - achieve some efficiencies in addministration and purchasing. But there are a lot of arguments on the downside.

*Citizens will quickly learn that the new, large districts don't belong to them, but to the state Board and Department, which as a result of Act 60 already wield enormous control over the personnel, curriculum and financing of public education.

*Consolidation of governance in the name of efficiency inexorably leads to consolidation of schools in the name of efficiency.

*Superintendents with greater responsibilities will demand more money and more staff assistance.

* Organizing taxpayers across town lines to resist large-district spending excesses will be next to impossible. Organizing Vermont-NEA teachers' union members across town lines to defend higher spending and more generous union contracts will be easy.

*With a public high school in every large district, the parental choice system, now practiced in 90 tuition towns, will evaporate.

It may be instructive to look at the experience 300 miles away in New Brunswick, Canada. In 1967 that province enacted its own version of Act 60. In 1997 the government concluded that "the current layers of administration and decision-making, together with the competing forces of many interest groups, are formidable barriers to improvement in the system." In other words, the provincial government had gotten tired of paying for too much of the empty shadow of "local control".

The perfectly rational result was the abolition of the powerless local school boards, and the formal centralization of all power in the provincial Ministry of Education.

With Act 60, Vermont has already gone a long way down that path. "Governance reforms" may take us the rest of the way.

The Raid on the Education Fund
February 2006

On town meeting day March 7 voters in at least 120 towns will find on their warning the question, “Shall the voters advise our legislative delegation to oppose any use of the State Education Fund for non-education purposes and any reduction of existing State General Fund support to the State Education Fund?”

This question, called the Grafton Resolution, was added to town warnings at the request of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. It was prompted by the well-known maxim that, just as Nature abhors a vacuum, a state fund flush with cash attracts raiders.

First, a quick tutorial on the Education Fund, created by Act 60 in 1997. The Fund was created to pay the costs of K-12 education for every public school in the state. Its $1.34 billion in revenues (2007, projected) comes from the statewide non-residential property tax ($469 million, 35%), the “local share” homestead property tax ($423 million, 31 %), a formula-driven transfer from the General Fund ($294 million, 22 %), the proceeds of one third of the 6% sales tax ($113 million, 8 %), and miscellaneous sources ($45 million, 4%).

Because real estate values have risen sharply over the last four years, the Education Fund is flush with revenues. But the Transportation Fund is short at least $24 million to qualify for federal matching funds.

So Gov. Douglas’s FY 2007 budget proposes to take $14.3 million from the Education Fund to match transportation grants. It also proposes to take another $3.2 million to shore up the chronically underfunded teachers retirement system. This $17.5 million raid is supposed to be balanced by curbing income sensitivity payments to certain high value property owners. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

Hence the Grafton Resolution. It would tell legislators to keep putting the required $294 million from the General Fund into the Education Fund and, most importantly, not raid that Fund to pay for “non education” expenses like transportation and teachers retirement.

The Grafton Resolution conveniently ignores the fact that public schools all over the state are increasingly drawing down Education Fund moneys to pay for universal preschool programs – in effect, adding two more grades to the public school system. This began in 1998, when the State Board of Education decided that it had the power to authorize this fund raid without benefit of legislative action.

Last May, in the dark of night and over Gov. Douglas’s objection (but not his veto), the legislature made Education Fund raiding for universal preschool legal for the year ending this June 30. Unless the legislature ratifies this again, this fund raid will become illegal again on July 1, and very ripe for a taxpayers lawsuit.

Taxpayers have every right to be shocked at the escalating property tax bills for public education. The Grafton resolution against Education Fund raiding is all right so far as it goes. What the taxpayers should demand, however, is a version that reads like this.

“We the taxpayers have had it with paying sharply escalating property taxes for public school spending, even as our school age population continues its steady downward trend.”

“We oppose robbing the Education Fund to pay for retirement and transportation spending. We also oppose the underhanded and even more costly expansion of the public schools by adding preschools for 3- and 4-year olds.”

“Our public school system is an over regulated, bureaucratically top-heavy monopoly producing disappointing results, even as the people employed by the system seem to be doing very well for themselves.”

“So listen up: it’s time to give parents choices for their children, among a wide variety of education providers - many of them lower cost than the overgrown public schools. It’s time for education freedom districts, charter schools, universal tuition tax credits for independent schools, and dual enrollment for college-bound high school seniors.”

“It’s time to let all kinds of schools - public and independent, nonprofit and for-profit –compete with high standards and meaningful assessments, so taxpayers, parents and children can choose what gives them their money’s worth in pupil achievement.”

“It’s time to contract out many school support services to small business. It’s time to peel off lots of people who don’t teach, and target spending on classrooms. It’s time to put the teachers’ union portion of local school budgets on the ballot, tuition pupils out to other schools whenever the union goes on strike, and force the Vermont NEA to make public how much it spends on its political activities.”

“In short, it’s time that legislators, the State Board, the teachers’ union and the rest of the educational establishment realize that taxpayers are not going to keep on paying soaring tax bills to feed a government monopoly system that costs far too much, gets feeble results, constantly caves in to union demands, and resists every change that promises efficiency in operation and improvement in outcomes.”

“We’ll keep paying – but not on your terms. On ours.

Any questions?”

Hard Choices on Expanding Preschools
January 2006

In his state of the state message this month, Gov. Jim Douglas observed that last session the legislature “added a provision into the final budget bill that I fear will lead to an unacceptable outcome: adding two more pre-kindergarten grades to the already stressed K-12 education system and putting taxpayers on the hook to fund it.” He went on to ask the legislature “to reconsider the decision to further increase the cost of education and the growing tax bills that accompany those costs.”

That growing tax bill to fund preschool could eventually run up to $70 million a year, if every 3- and 4-year old in the state signed up for a publicly funded 20 hour a week preschool slot.

And what does society get for this expenditure? Does a universal population of 3- and 4-year olds gain any educational benefits from this taxpayer investment? The plain answer, backed by lots of research, is no. That is to say, by fourth grade researchers can’t tell which students had preschool and which started at age 5 in kindergarten.

In Georgia, the state that pioneered universal preschool, a commissioned ten-year study found that there were no lasting cognitive gains from one year of preschool participation. The Congressionally mandated study of Head Start for low-income children found that after preschool children showed significant gains on only six of thirty measures, and those gains were unlikely to persist.

So if there are no lasting educational benefits from a costly universal expansion of the public schools by two more grades, why are so many legislators eager to vote for it? First, “free” preschools are popular with working parents who otherwise would have to pay for day care. Second, two more public school grades means more jobs for more teachers and miscellaneous aides. Third, for a lot of advocates, getting toddlers away from their unqualified parents and into public programs run by people with credentials is a step toward improving society.

Last May the legislature slipped into the FY 2006 budget bill a one-year authorization for school districts to send their preschool bills to the Education Fund for payment. This is the action that Gov. Douglas wants the legislature to reconsider. What could the legislature do to make this more acceptable? It could limit preschool to “at risk” 3- and 4-year olds, on whom over $20 million a year is already being spent. If preschool has any educational benefit – a contention much in doubt – it might possibly help at-risk kids to catch up with their more fortunate peers, something that universal preschool will decidedly not do.

Another approach would be that of Florida: give parents $2500 vouchers that they could cash in at the public, private or religious preschool of their choice. This would cost considerably less than taxpayer financing of unionized, credentialed public preschools. It would at least give the parents some choice, and it would keep alive the private day care businesses that are in mortal peril if “free” universal preschool is enacted.

A third approach would be to give a tax credit, as Arizona does, for contributions to nonprofit scholarship funding organizations (like Vermont SOS) that offer scholarships to needy children to attend the preschool of their parents’ choice.

A final approach would be to require an up or down school district vote to continue public preschools after September 1, 2006, or to require that, if continued, the local program be converted into a parental choice model. An interesting variant would be to give the voters the choice between supporting preschools and claiming a pro rata credit against their property tax bills.

Whether or not one believes that preschools have tangible benefits worth the costs to already burdened taxpayers, one thing is clear. Only one act of the legislature ever authorized public schools to spend Education Fund dollars on universal preschools. That was the provision deviously slipped into the FY06 budget bill last May. Unless this legislature acts, that one-year authority for Education Fund preschool spending will expire on June 30.

As Senate appropriations chair Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille) recently pointed out, public school preschool spending “was in practice, and not in statute.” In other words, some school districts have been spending tax dollars on preschools without any statutory  authority.

But just because it has become a common practice to spend other people’s money without statutory authorization doesn’t mean it’s legal. It’s not. Vermonters should remind their legislators that our constitution requires that “No money shall be drawn out of the Treasury, unless first appropriated by act of legislation.”

Getting Value for Education Tax Dollars
August 2005

Property tax bills are out in many Vermont towns, and taxpayers are screaming.

The present education finance law, Act 68, took effect in the school year that began in September 2004. In that school year Vermont property taxpayers paid $652 million for education. In the new year just starting, the legislative Joint Fiscal Office projects that they will pay $714 million. In the 2006-07 year the bill will be $799 million. These figures are net of income sensitivity adjustments, which reduce the property tax burden for families making (generally) less than $75,000 a year.

The projections show a 22% school property tax increase in just two years, compared to a two-year inflation increase of around 7%. And these projections do not include the expansion of public preschool programs authorized (in the dark of night) by the FY 2006 budget act. Wow! No wonder property taxpayers are screaming.

Why this startling increase, when the number of K-12 pupils is steadily going down, not up? The educational establishment has a long list of reasons. Heating and transportation costs are obviously up. So are taxpayer-paid premiums for the gold-plated health insurance policies enjoyed by teachers and other employees. Teachers can make a case for wage increases to keep up with government depreciation of the dollar (inflation). Complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t come cheap.

Significantly, one case they don’t make is that the additional taxpayer expense is producing a product of increasing value – better-equipped graduates. Only a week ago Education Commissioner Richard Cate announced that the state has no intention of requiring its high school seniors to pass an exit exam in order to graduate. And why not? Cate didn’t say this, but to obtain an impressively high percentage of seniors passing the exit exam, the exam would have to be so weak that parents and taxpayers would catch on, with unhappy political results.

If not a required exit exam to serve as an accumulated value-added indicator, why not offer seniors the opportunity to voluntarily take such an exam, like the one developed last year by the Fordham Foundation and The Education Trust? One will have to look long and hard to find a teacher or administrator who will support this proposal. They will say things like “we would have to start teaching intensive math, English, history, etc. because parents would want their children to do well on the exam.” Well, yes.

Public schools are accustomed to spending millions of taxpayer dollars, while avoiding every serious measure of accountability except that of accounting for the use of funds. The feeble assessments given by Vermont schools (called NSRE) yield little if any meaningful comparisons to anything. The more meaningful NAEP tests are only statewide samples, and reveal nothing about individual schools.

If parents believe that their kids are academically shortchanged by School A, they can’t choose to send their kids to Schools B or C, much less an independent school, unless they are willing to pay the full tuition out of their pockets. (Parents from the 90 tuition towns can choose other public or approved non-sectarian independent schools, but only about 8 percent of Vermont’s pupils live in those towns.) For all but the richest or most dedicated Vermont families, choosing a better school is not an economically viable option. Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is no champion of parental choice, but he has courageously taken on his state’s public school establishment. Two years ago he announced a program of management reviews, to save tax dollars by wringing operating waste out of school systems.

The second and more controversial part of Warner’s program will conduct statewide performance reviews to “analyze how effectively each school division uses resources to boost student achievement.” It will also allow comparisons among schools. Whether the public school establishment in Virginia can beat down or cripple this bold proposal is yet to be seen.

In the long run, the best answer to high taxpayer costs and a lack of demonstrable improvements in achievement is consumer choice and provider competition. Given the present legislature, voluntary exit exams, coupled with a hard nosed independent review on how well schools convert resources into measurable achievements, may be the most Vermont parents, students and taxpayers can hope for.

What those parents, students and taxpayers lack so far is an aggressive champion to force those issues on to the front burner in Montpelier.

Cutting Through the Preschool Smoke and Mirrors
May 2005

Once again the Vermont Senate is about to advance a universal “early education” or “Pre-K” bill (S. 132). The bill would authorize school districts to establish voluntary programs to give “developmentally appropriate educational services” to children aged 3 and 4.

The programs would be subject to the usual state regulation (teacher certification and licensing, curriculum and facility standards, regional collaboratives, accreditation etc.). School districts could contract with private “qualified service providers” (existing day care centers), but those businesses would be subject to state standards and controls.

Parents who chose an independent provider would have to pay the entire cost. Religious-oriented preschools need not apply.

Senators need to take a very clear–eyed look at the proposition before them, and the nature and interests of its chief advocates.

The pressure for universal preschools came initially from then-Education Commissioner Ray McNulty in 2002. The Department, and its satellite education lobby groups, is very aware that Vermont’s school age population is going down, while school costs are going sharply up.

Taxpayers don’t like this. The solution is to get more kids into the system. By adding two more grades below kindergarten, the system can find the new pupils that will help to justify its ever-increasing spending. The teachers union, of course, will be delighted to enroll hundreds of new pre-K teachers, collect their dues, and add them to its political action machine.

Some large businesses are eager to see taxpayer-financed pre-K, because it will relieve day care pressures and costs for many of their employees, and remove the issue from employee benefits and collective bargaining. Other businesses, most of them small, local and woman-managed, are not so supportive. They can clearly see that “free” public pre-schools will destroy independent day care centers, by removing so many kids that there won’t be enough 1- and 2- year olds to keep the business going.

A significant number of local school districts have already cobbled together their own pre-school programs. These programs, which now cost $14 million, have never been authorized by the legislature, and are thus arguably unauthorized expenditures of taxpayer dollars.

Nonetheless, the Department has vigorously encouraged their expansion. It has even put out materials to show local districts how enrolling a bunch of low-cost pre-K kids will allow the districts to hold down their per pupil spending, and thus avoid higher, and politically unpopular, local share property tax rates. Those districts would welcome statutory protection.

For years the state has made grants to schools for “essential early education” services for pre-K children who are certain to become special education students once in kindergarten. Act 68 also gives districts additional Education Fund money for pre-K programs and mentoring for “at risk” pupils from poor families, or who don’t speak English at home. The general fund also provides $1.3 million for the Department’s “early education initiative”.

Three well-known academic studies show that spending large amounts of money on at-risk children, including lots of family intervention, can diminish emotional and behavioral problems, promote social adjustment, and improve cognitive learning. But after years of studies, there is no evidence to show that giving all children two years of Pre-K results in anything of lasting educational value.

But the preschool advocates now insist on “universal” preschools - “quality” preschools, not just babysitting. To them that means government-certified teachers, standards, facilities, assessments, etc. – and lots of tax dollars.

The unacknowledged secret here is that universal preschool – for all kids, not just those at risk - is mostly a “free” day care program disguised as “education”, to win political support, get the key to the Education Fund, and expand the influence of the Education Department, teachers union, and school districts.

Universal “free” government pre-K programs will either swallow up or wipe out small day care businesses. For those – notably liberals – concerned about closing the achievement gap between at-risk kids and all other kids, universal preschool won’t do it. It will just eat up the funding that might do it.

It will however, produce many new highly paid jobs – for the teachers and administrators who will preside over a 14% expansion of Vermont’s government education empire.

Facing Up To the Free Rider Problem
August 2004

The Vermont NEA, the state’s 11,000 member teacher and support staff union, has distributed its election year questionnaire to candidates for the legislature. For an organization so militant in pursuit of its political objectives, the questionnaire is surprisingly even handed. It gives a fair summary of five important issues, states the union’s position, and asks candidates to agree or not.

Two of the items correspond to two long held positions of the union: universal single payer government-run health care, and opposition to expanding parental choice to independent schools. Another item asks redress of an injustice to teachers (and state employees): the underfunding of the state-run retirement plans.

The union supports labor bargaining by supervisory unions, instead of town by town. There’s a lot to recommend this in terms of efficiency. Reducing the often exhausting negotiations from some 200 units to 60 would make life a lot easier for a lot of people. In all likelihood it would eventually lead to multi-town unified school districts. That raises an important question of public school governance that deserves a lot of careful thought.

The union’s number one issue, however, is one that has come and gone for sixteen years: the agency fee.

Under long standing labor law, a union may organize a workplace by winning a representation election of the members of the bargaining unit (for example, all teachers). Once the union is certified, the employer (school board) is obligated to bargain with the union for a teacher employment contract. When approved by the union and the board (the voters do not approve contracts), the union is obligated to represent every person in the bargaining group, whether or not that person chose to join the union and pay dues. The union wants to charge these “free riders”, who get benefits but contribute nothing toward meeting the expenses, an “agency fee”, deducted from their paychecks.

In 1988 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that state law did not allow the enforcement of agency fee provisions. An effort by the VT NEA to get the required statutory change fizzled out in 1990. Now the union plans to make another run at it.

In the context of current exclusionary bargaining laws, the union has a fair point. One obvious solution would be to allow dissenting teachers to exit the bargaining group, but that would probably mean the eventual end of the union. Another solution is compulsory unionization: all teachers have to join the union to teach in a unionized school. That, happily, is not legal. So the remaining choice is to charge all non-union teachers the agency fee, somewhat less than full union dues.

The key question is “how much less?” In the union’s view, agency fees should be very close to union dues. If they are, most teachers will pay a bit more and get the full benefits of union membership. If the fee is only, say, half of union dues, many teachers will drop out of the union. Then they can still benefit from the union’s bargaining for higher wages and benefits, workplace improvements, and representation in grievance hearings, at half the cost.

The union thus loads as many union expenditures as possible into the “benefit” category. But union leaders also keep their finances as far in the dark as possible. Right now the NEA is suing the U.S. Department of Labor to overturn a requirement to file financial disclosure statements.

In one 1997 Pennsylvania court case, it turned out that only 25% of union dues were actually used for bargaining and representation. Frequently a large fraction of union dues is swallowed up by lobbying, political action, conventions, supporting strikes, organizing, and litigation (often to keep members from finding out what the union does with their dues money).

Given the current exclusionary bargaining law, a reasonable solution to the “free rider” problem might be this: a full independent audit and disclosure to members (and the public) of the uses of union dues, and non-member payment of an agency fee sufficient to cover only the independently determined bargaining and representation expenses.

The reason why the VT-NEA is highly unlikely to agree to any such solution may open a lot of eyes to how modern labor unions operate.

The Preschool Bait and Switch
February 2004

This year’s major social policy initiative will be a dramatic taxpayer-funded expansion of “preschool education”. The leading advocacy groups, the Child Care Fund of Vermont (CCFV) and the Vermont Business Roundtable, are mounting an all-out campaign to persuade legislators that quintupling the current state spending on preschool programs (ages 3 and 4) is a wise use of Act 68 tax dollars. Their legislative vehicle is S. 166, now in the Senate Education committee.

The advocates argue that brain development is quite rapid among 3-5 year old children, so that’s the time the public should spend money on them to maximize their development. Kindergarten teachers report that the pupils are coming to them are insufficiently “ready to learn.” Finally, “investing” taxpayer dollars in preschool programs will pay enormous dividends down the road, in terms of better-adjusted students, higher test scores and high school graduation rates, and lower special education costs. The advocates like to cite “savings in the range of 4 to 7 dollars” for every dollar of public money spent on preschool programs.

CCFV proposes to create a “public private partnership” called “Vermont’s Alliance for Children”. This would consist of a state-sanctioned nonprofit organization controlling “local entities” (that’s the private part) spending millions of taxpayer’s dollars (that’s the public part). Children would attend public preschools ten hours a week, 36 weeks a year, at an annual cost to the Education Fund of $21 million, Church-centered preschools are of course not included.

What’s the evidence for the value of preschool programs? Well, here is where you have to watch out for the bait and switch.

The advocates cite three famous experiments with preschool children, called Perry Preschool, Chicago Parent Child Center, and Abecedarian. The projects did in fact achieve some positive results in terms of later child performance. Case closed? Not so fast.

All three projects dealt with seriously at risk children. The participants were almost all minority children with well below average intelligence. They overwhelmingly came from dysfunctional single parent welfare homes.

The Perry project was deemed a success because by age 19 the Perry preschoolers clearly fared better than their peers in the control group. Only 33% had dropped out of high school, only 31% had been arrested, and the 25 girls had only experienced 17 pregnancies.

The amount and cost of the resources consumed per child were staggering. For instance, in the Abecedarian program the government took charge of the seriously at-risk children not at age 3 years, but at age 5 months, with an initial ratio of one teacher to three children. The annual per pupil cost in 2004 dollars was $52,000.

Pouring the resources to the most desperate children can hardly help but produce some benefits, and most people would probably agree that it’s an inescapable public cost. But to proclaim “4 to 1” or “7 to 1” rates of return for investment in a program for all children is just not honest. There is no academic study that links costs and benefits for a preschool program other than a program serving the most desperately at risk children.

Prof. Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor at Yale, has written “there is a large body of evidence that there is little to be gained by exposing middle class children to early education. Those who argue in favor of universal preschool education ignore evidence that indicates early schooling is inappropriate for many 4–year olds, and that it may even be harmful to their development.”

Far from being an isolated dissenter, Prof. Zigler, known as “the Father of Headstart”, is chair of the Advisory Council of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The impetus for this movement comes from several different sources. A lot of sincere people believe that lavishing lots of dollars on preschoolers is the Next Big Thing in social progress. The Department of Education is obviously eager to expand the public school system. The NEA teachers’ union will naturally be enthusiastic, anticipating that expanded public preschool programs will bring them hundreds of new dues paying members.

A major driving force is Business. Universal preschool, especially when it expands from a ten hour a week to a 30 or 40 hour a week program, will be a boon to businesses. If the kids are in school at 3 and 4, their employee parents won’t have to pay for day care, and the employer won’t have to provide for or bargain about day care.

So Vermonters are about to witness a major effort by Business, state Government’s most expansion-minded bureaucracy, and Child Welfare Liberals, supported by the state’s largest Union, to get the legislature to launch a major new program, of high cost and dubious value, and bill those costs to the Education Fund, two thirds of whose revenues come from the property tax.

Somewhere somebody has to get real about balancing very significant taxpayer costs with largely fuzzy (“readiness to learn”), often distressingly transient, and for most children unnecessary benefits.

Is anybody out there listening?

Vermont Education by the Numbers
September 2003

Each year the U.S. Department of Education publishes a Digest of Education Statistics. The September 2003 Vermont Economy Newsletter takes a close look at state education spending trends reported in the 2002 Digest. It finds some eye-popping conclusions about Vermont’s performance.

Since school year 1996-97 the number of children in public schools nationally has increased by five percent. In Vermont, enrollment peaked in 1996-97 and has decreased by eight percent since. At the same time the number of Vermont teachers has increased by six percent.

As a result, Vermont’s pupil to teacher ratio is the lowest in the nation (11.4). Over the past 20 years the Vermont ratio has fallen 46% faster than that of the rest of the country.

Now let’s look at spending, in inflation adjusted dollars. Back in 1983 Vermont spent right at the national average per pupil. Spurred by the new Foundation Plan of 1986 and the state surpluses in 1987-89, by 1991 Vermont per pupil spending had risen to $8800, 25% above the national average of $7000. Then in the early 1990s per pupil spending dropped because cash strapped legislatures froze the general fund contribution to state foundation aid, and local taxpayers resisted sharp property tax increases.

But after enactment of Act 60 in 1997, Vermont school spending took off like Seabiscuit. This was due to the availability of revenues from the new state property tax, coupled with official exhortations to low spending towns to jack up their spending in the name of “equal educational opportunity”. By 2002 per pupil spending had reached $10,200, 29% above the national average.

From 1997-98 to 2001-02 Vermont spending rose 30%, compared to 25% for the nation as a whole. But the rest of the nation had more students; Vermont had fewer students. Spending per pupil rose 42% in Vermont in just four years, twice the increase nationally.

The Vermont Department of Education has lauded the performance of our public school students, measured by test scores. Around the country, black and Spanish speaking students, for whatever reasons, do less well on tests. Since only two percent of Vermont’s students are black or Spanish speaking, a more informative comparison is between all Vermont students and all white students nationally.

That comparison shows that for 4th and 8th grade writing - the only NAEP outcomes measured in 2002 – Vermonters scored within two percent of the national average. However only 46% of 8th graders scored “proficient” or above, and only 32% of Vermont 4th graders did so.

What does this add up to? Since 1997 Vermont has been on an education spending jag. Its per pupil spending is now 29% above the national average. Even as the number of pupils has dropped by 8%, the number of teachers has increased by 6%. Spending per pupil has increased from $7800 to $10,200 in inflation adjusted 2002 dollars. But student outcomes are stuck at the national average for white children, and a majority of Vermont students tested fall below the level defined as “solid academic mastery”.

And all that spending has come from taxes – mostly property taxes, both statewide and sharing pool. No wonder the 2003 legislature made serious changes in Act 60.

Those changes are not likely to stabilize real education spending, or the property tax burden, the sales tax increase notwithstanding. At the present rate of spending the relief promised in 2003 will evaporate by no later than 2006, and perhaps sooner.

The real problem is that when Act 60 broke the historic link between local taxation and local school spending, there remained no effective mechanism to restrain education spending. That’s why the legislature was forced to create a “cost containment” study committee to figure out what to do next.

If, as the Supreme Court decreed in the Brigham case, there can no longer be a link between local tax base and local school budgets, then pressure to contain school spending will have to be imposed from the power that now controls all education spending – the state. That will not prove to be popular.

Assuming the Five Supreme Legislators won’t repent of their Brigham handiwork, the only way out – both for better education and for taxpayer relief – lies in completely changing the way children get educated. We now have a monopoly education system controlled from Montpelier, its costs constantly pushed upwards by, notably, an aggressive and politically well organized teachers union.

The alternative is to give up the monopoly whose revenues come entirely from the government Instead, go to a “system” where many vendors, public and private, compete for the patronage of informed, empowered consumers, placing their children in schools or other arrangements that best do the job the parents want.

If Vermonters don’t begin to examine the merits of such an alternative, the education statistics of 2012 are likely to make the disappointing results of the past six years seem pretty moderate by comparison.

The Solution Legislators Can’t See
May 2003

The legislature is well into its end game for this year. The biggest issue awaiting resolution is what is strangely called “Act 60 reform”.

Act 60 of 1997 was the fifth school aid formula adopted since 1969 and the only formula whose operative principle was dictated by the Vermont Supreme Court. Since Act 60 was rushed through the 1997 legislature, the reaction to it has gone through several stages.

First, not surprisingly, was resentment that the Five Supreme Legislators had forced the legislature to abandon the long held practice of sending general fund aid to help the poor districts, while the rich districts took care of themselves. This was coupled with strong opposition to the first statewide property tax levied in living memory (actually, since 1931).

Then came sending town outrage against the Act 60 sharing pool, and some of the most prominent rich towns raised private funding to avoid the forced sharing.

Then came several years of towns voting whopping increases in school budgets, in the belief that the extra money would be extracted from the rich towns, or the state, or the tooth fairy. Overall education spending increased 40% from 1997-2004, while the number of students decreased by four percent.

Then, starting late in 2002, the House Ways and Means Committee determined to get rid of the much maligned property tax sharing pool by raising non-property taxes. That effort at large scale tax shifting, accelerated by the defeat of a record 42 school budgets on town meeting day, is the one now entering its final phase.

As this process moved forward, House and Senate leaders of both parties have increasingly intoned that “there has to be cost containment.” Gov. Douglas joined in, declaring “if we do not contain the increase in the cost of education, we’ll find ourselves back in the same situation in the next few years”.

Legislators appear to have finally grasped the fact that the state is now in complete control of education spending. That’s progress. Only a couple of years ago the friends of Act 60 were writing op ed pieces bravely declaring that Act 60 had protected or even increased “local control”.

What legislators have not yet grasped is that by centralizing education finance through the state, and putting the state in charge of cost containment, they are well on the way to creating One Big School System. They are now trying to make that system more efficient through local district consolidations, spending caps, system-wide teacher contracts, joint purchasing, combined facilities usage – all the techniques that people in charge of any big system employ to squeeze out inefficiencies and reduce costs.

Faced with a similar problem, the leaders of businesses (like, notably, General Electric, ABB, EDS, Ingersoll Rand, and Union Pacific) perceived that it is nearly impossible to profitably manage a far-flung and diverse business empire from the top. Trying to do that leads to one-size-fits-all rules, bureaucratic decision making, expensive middle management deadwood, loss of employee initiative, slow response to competition, and less (or no) profit.

Vermont policymakers should start paying attention to what works in the business world. Instead of trying to centrally manage One Big School System modeled after the old Soviet economy, they should go to a tested and efficient market model: informed and empowered consumers choosing education services that meet their children’s needs from the offerings of many competing providers.

That is the only real reform that promises education responsive to the diverse needs of all Vermont children. And since competing independent schools (not to mention homeschooling) are almost always less expensive than government-run schools, market-based education is the only reform that offers any real restraint on taxpayer costs.

That would, of course, mean ending the state’s government-run education monopoly, and putting parents, not government employees, in the driver’s seat. Regrettably, that is also the one solution that is not under active consideration in Montpelier.

Why? Because it attracts fierce opposition from the groups that have long been feeding off the government school monopoly. At some point – soon – legislators will need to decide whether they will start acting in the interests of school children and taxpayers, or whether they will go on meekly supporting the well organized public education interest groups that are making out very well from a taxpayer-funded school monopoly, and are almost fanatically opposed to taxpayer-friendly consumer choice and provider competition.

Nice Work!
April 2003

As the 2003 legislature struggles to “reform” Act 60, another important piece of education legislation is working slowly forward under the radar. This is the “early learning bill” (S. 166) sponsored by Sens. Vincent Illuzzi (R-Essex Orleans) and Jim Condos (D-Chittenden). The bill is the showcase legislation of recently departed Education Commissioner Ray McNulty, the State Board of Education, and the constellation of public education interest groups revolving around the Department.

The Department’s public argument for the early learning bill is this: “Kindergarten is too late to begin our concern for children’s learning. Children are born ready to learn and the public education system must acknowledge this reality in its reform efforts” (emphasis added).

There are studies claiming that pre-kindergarten schooling advances cognitive learning for certain pupils. These studies are few and controversial (by fourth grade the favored preschoolers are usually indistinguishable from other pupils). So the advocates for universal preschool rest their case not on measurable educational gains, but on a different ground. They claim that schooling three- and four-year olds contributes to their social and emotional development, making them more “ready to learn”.

This contention is also controversial. Some academic researchers believe that even if providing early education to 3 and 4 year old minority children with IQs below 86 produces benefits, as the Ypsilanti study showed, expanding such a program to all children may well produce more negative results than positive ones.

But the Department has passed beyond debating such contentions. It boldly asks that public education be changed from ages 5-17 to ages 3-17. Then, predictably, it outlines what this expanded public school establishment will look like. It will look exactly like our present centrally-controlled, industrialized, over-regulated, costly, bureaucratic K-12 public school system.

The Department intends (but the bill stops short of mandating) that every public school district operate a preschool program, although pupil participation is, at least initially, voluntary. The new programs may be run directly by the school district, operated by contract, or linked in state-approved “partnerships” with other “approved community-based early education programs”. The programs will take in all children, not just at-risk children.

The state Board will adopt and enforce Standards. All facilities must have 50 square feet of floor space per child and 3 square feet per child of staff space, plus fencing, mechanical ventilation, etc. etc. Every teacher or facility involved will be nationally accredited, licensed, or certified. Many of the additional teachers will doubtless pay dues to the teachers’ union, which is ardently behind the proposal. Regional Early Childhood Councils will coordinate.

The Department estimates that if 80% of all 3- and 4-year olds choose to participate, this will cost, potentially, $34 million. Where will it come from? Why, from the “General State Support Grant” cornucopia created by popular, dependable Act 60!

Who could possibly oppose such a forward-looking proposal? The Department’s answer: “Some policy makers may submit to special interests and reject the notion that the public education system should encompass early education.” One wonders just who these evil “special interests” might be. One possibility: unscrupulous employers threatened with losing their illegal 3- and 4-year-old work force.

Notably lacking in the Department’s proposal is any recognition that leaving preschoolers at home with a family member might be preferable to herding them into the school system. Nor did the Department entertain the thought that perhaps faith-based organizations might provide more trusted and effective “social and emotional development” than public schools. And supremely absent is any recognition that parents might want to choose among many preschool programs, instead of having to consign their child to the local government-run monopoly.

Indeed, the best the Department can come up with is the promise to “create a task force (yes!) on increasing opportunities for parental involvement in the lives of their children”, and to create a “parent position” on the state Board of Education, whose present members are apparently childless.

A case can be made for certain forms of taxpayer-financed intervention to give at-risk preschoolers a better chance to learn and grow, and to avoid becoming youth and adult problems for society. But what the Department has proposed in its empire-building enthusiasm is to generalize the claimed benefits of preschooling at-risk children to all children, mandate that local school districts operate preschool programs that expand the public school system by 15%, authorize scarce state capital construction funds to build new preschools even as the school age population drops, festoon the program with all of the Department’s bureaucratic licensing, certifying, approving and accrediting chains, ignore the potential of faith-based alternatives, and reject parental choice. The bill for the added costs is then assigned to Act 60, probably the most costly and unpopular program in the state’s history since enforcement of the runaway slave act.

Nice work.

Where’s Theseus?
March 2003

Once upon a time the King of Athens, owing tribute to the King of Crete, was forced each year to select seven each of the city’s best young men and women. They were sent off to Crete on a ship with black sails. There the Cretan king sent the youths into the labyrinth to be devoured by the half-bull, half-human Minotaur.

For the Athenians the event was always a matter of great anguish, weeping, and civic humiliation. But it went on year after year until the hero Theseus, son of the Athenian king, volunteered to be one of the victims. It was not a death wish. Theseus took a sword with him, found and killed the monster, led the Athenian youths out of the labyrinth, and sailed home with them to Athens.

On town meeting day this month a record 42 local school budgets went down to defeat. It’s hard to refute the obvious argument that the wave of rejections is a direct result of taxpayer resentment with property taxes and Act 60. Taxpayers are tired of feeding the monster.

But by voting down school budgets they have only postponed their day or reckoning. Eventually the state will force angry local taxpayers to adopt school budgets, as the Benson episode of 1994 so vividly showed. Benson voters rejected twelve successive school budgets. The legislature authorized the school board to borrow money to operate at 87% of the previous year’s budget until the voters caved in.

After Angry Tuesday Gov. Douglas remarked “no matter what the school funding formula is, unless we contain the cost of public education, we are not going to get it under control.” The Governor’s observation echoes similar remarks by Gov. Dean made over the past six years.

Meanwhile legislators, especially the House Ways and Means Committee, are struggling to find some different way to feed the monster. Since property taxes are the most important source of taxpayer outrage, their goal is to reduce the property tax burden and shift education costs to higher income and sales taxes.

Perhaps instead of just feeding the monster they should heed the remarks of the current and immediate past Governors. Why are we spending over $10,000 per child in Vermont’s public school systems? What can we do about it? Here are some good places to look.

Vermont public schools have the lowest pupil-teacher ratio on the country. Instead of the “sage on the stage” teaching 25 in a class, Vermont teachers on average are teaching half that many. Bigger classes – and thus bigger schools - are an obvious answer, but rarely end up saving money (because transportation costs and the added bureaucracy soon eat up the savings from larger class sizes).

Converting teachers into learning mentors making full use of new educational technology may enable teachers to easily manage 40 or 50 diverse pupils – but of course the teachers will have to learn a whole different way of operating that they heard nothing about in education school.

Most public school teachers enjoy very costly “Cadillac” health insurance benefits. Why not create a statewide insurance pool, offer a choice of defined contribution plans, and give teachers incentives to choose budget-friendly high deductible plans with medical savings accounts?

The school board negotiates teacher’s contracts, and then puts the price tag to the voters. The voters can accept the budget, but can’t alter the contract. Why not let the voters vote on two budgets, one covering the costs of the teachers’ contract, the other the cost of the building, school lunch, buses, books, and administration?

Special education has become a major cost factor for many schools, as schools classify non-readers as “dyslexic” instead of what they all too often are, victims of instructional failure. Why not insist that schools use tax dollars to teach phonics-based reading, and get most of those “dyslexic” kids out of special education once and for all?

Similarly, who not make the placement and extraordinary costs of special education a state responsibility, and make the state department defend the adequacy of individualized education plans against legal attacks?

Most independent schools in Vermont – especially faith based schools – educate children far more economically than public schools, and from all indications every bit as well. Why not assign the basic state support grant to parents, and let them choose among public and independent schools for their children? And why not offer a modest $500 tax credit to encourage even more cost effective home schooling? Consumer choice and provider competition almost always produce better and more cost-effective results than top-heavy monopolies.

Legislators should quit looking for ingenious new ways to feed the public education monster. Vermonters need a Theseus who will demand that our tax dollars be used efficiently to produce good educational outcomes, and not merely preserve the power, pay and perquisites of an overly expensive Act 60-funded near-monopoly education system.

Where Act 60 is Taking Us
February 2003

A month into its first session, the new legislature has in its sights the single most irritating statute in Vermont’s law books: the education finance law, Act 60.

Act 60, enacted in 1997, implements the mandate of the Five Supreme Legislators in the Brigham case. That mandate – nowhere found in the constitution - is this: any educational finance plan must result in each school district having “the substantially equal opportunity to have access to similar educational revenues.”

With a judicial gun at their heads, the 1997 legislature fashioned a bill to obey this mandate. In its broad outline, in FY04 the state will raise $477 million for the Education Fund by levying a state property tax at $1.10 per $100 of state-equalized assessed value. The state will also transfer some $240 million from the general fund to the education fund.

From this fund the state will makes block grant to local school districts of $5651 per equalized pupil (real pupils mathematically adjusted for grade level, poverty, transportation, and English as a second language.)

Those towns that wish to spend more than this block grant amount (almost all of them) will vote budgets providing for a higher expenditure per pupil. These towns become part of the sharing pool. The state general fund puts $27 million into the pool. Then the property in these sharing pool towns is taxed as if it were all one big town, to raise another $273 million, to make up the total amount of the adopted budgets. The “rich” towns in the pool thus transfer part of their property wealth to the “poor” towns.

The merit of this scheme is that it satisfies the Brigham mandate by equalizing the tax resources used to support education. The supreme disadvantage, aside from the sharing pool’s notable unpopularity among “rich” towns, is that there is no longer any mechanism for restraining educational spending.

In FY 97, before Brigham (and exclusive of federal receipts), Vermonters spent $718 million to educate 105,330 public school students. In FY04 they will spend $1,011 million to educate 101,022 students.

Over seven years spending has increased 40% to educate four percent fewer students. This is a five percent annual increase compounded over the period – far above the consumer price index. Public education spending now averages just over $10,000 per pupil.

Both House and Senate in 2001-02 sought to change Act 60. Both sought to increase the state block grant per pupil and shrink or eliminate the detested “sharing pool”. But the two chambers could not agree on the magnitude of the changes or on numerous other details. Last May they went home empty handed.

Even if this year the House and Senate could magically agree on a “reform” of the funding mechanism, that would do nothing to deal with the fundamental problem: there is no longer any effective mechanism to curb spiraling education spending.

Gov. Dean, to his credit, said on numerous occasions that the state can’t be expected to write a blank check for whatever local school districts decide to spend. In his campaign vision statement, Gov. Douglas said “meaningful cost controls [must be] adopted to limit spiraling increases in education spending.”

In a February 2 WCAX interview Senate President pro tem Peter Welch (D-Windsor) declared that it was time for the legislature to focus on the cost side of education. He mentioned things like creating mega-school districts and mega-supervisory unions. (He neglected to mention limiting teachers salaries, which are 70 percent of the cost of public education.)

What we are seeing here is the slowly dawning realization among state leaders that, thanks to the Five Supreme Legislators and Act 60, only the state can now make and enforce restraints on educational spending. We are very close to seeing a series of mandates from Montpelier that will instruct local school districts on how much they can spend, and on what, or else the state will cut off their money. For the first time in 226 years of Vermont history the state will enforce expenditure limits on towns or school districts.

Vermont is two or three years away from having One Big School System, effectively run from Montpelier. In addition to central control of all spending, the state, also thanks to Act 60, will increasingly tell local districts who they must hire, what they must teach, how they must assess students, how much they can spend, and on what.

Hawaii has such a system. By any standard it has the worst educational system of any state. Move over, Hawaii. Vermont is on its way.

Is there a way out? Sure. The legislature could restore a pre-1997 local tax – local control state aid formula and defy the Supreme Court to strike it down (only two of the Brigham justices are still on the court).

Or the legislature could concede the Brigham mandate, collect the funds statewide, and distribute them directly to parents to buy their children’s education from a wide range of competing public and independent providers (EAI’s SchoolChildren First proposal).

But what the legislature can’t do by consolidating districts or tinkering with Act 60 block grants, income sensitivity, and sharing pools, is avoid the steady march toward One Big School System. It’s time some courageous leader in Montpelier starts explaining this to the people of Vermont.

Home Schooling as Cost Control
October 2002

The October issue of Vermont magazine carries a timely article on home schooling by Melissa Pasanen. She reports that home schooling has gone from 100 pupils 1980 to 2,122 at last count. There are numerous reasons for this 20-fold growth over the past two decades.

The most obvious reason is that many parents do not have much respect for academic offerings at their local public school. Another major reason is the purging of moral values from many public schools as a supposed infringement on the First Amendment. Other reasons include lax school discipline and harassment by other students, "medicalizing" children to get Medicaid funds for the school, and the subjection of students to political indoctrination by teachers enamored of non-judgmental diversity, feminism, socialism and other such causes.

The Vermont Department of Education requires that homeschooling families enroll their children with the state, and provide a content outline for the various subject areas studied. One of several varieties of assessment is required after each year's study. Some homeschooling parents believe that the state jerks them around a bit too much. According to the state, however, over 80% of all homeschool programs are found to be adequate on first application, and almost all of the rest qualify with only modest revisions.

Two 1998 laws have also enriched homeschooling opportunities in Vermont. One required public schools to collaborate with homeschooled children by letting them into specialized courses and extracurricular activities. Another allowed the approval of "virtual " schools like Oak Meadow School in Putney.

The 800 pupils of Oak Meadow are scattered all over the U.S. and abroad. The school provides K-12 curriculum, educational materials, one-on-one pupil mentoring by experienced teachers (also scattered all over the U.S) via phone and emails, progress assessments, and record keeping. The actual learning occurs in the pupils' homes - the pupils never appear in Putney.

In 1998 Oak Meadow secured the status of an approved independent school, but with one unique proviso: Vermont's 90 tuition towns are forbidden to pay tuition for pupils enrolled there. It is the only approved non-sectarian independent school in Vermont that labors under this restriction.

The reason for the restriction is perfectly clear. The educational establishment is terrified that pupils might find distance learning more attractive than attending their local public school, especially now that homeschooled children can participate in basketball, band, drama and advanced placement courses at the public school. If pupils in tuition towns enjoyed a virtual school option, pupils dissatisfied with their public school would soon want the same option. There would be a pupil hemorrhage, and for each departing pupil the public schools would lose Act 60 funding.

The cost of a year's education through Oak Meadow's program is around $1200, plus the one time cost of buying a computer ($800) if the family doesn't have one. The cost of a year's education in Vermont's public schools is now approaching $10,000. If the taxpayers can save $8000 for every pupil who chooses a virtual school, why not encourage that? Especially when, in Oak Meadows' case, their pupils on the average perform in the 80th percentile or above on standardized tests, far above the level of public schools?

Remarkable educational technology is now cheaply available. The internet is awash with text, features, encyclopedias, audio, and video. The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, headed by former CalTech biochemist Dr. Arthur Robinson, markets a set of 22 CDs and a course manual. When the nine Saxon math books are added, the pupil has an academically rigorous 12-year education at a total cost of less than $500 (plus, of course, the necessary computer and printer.) And the materials can be used again with other children.

The total cost of a $500 per year tax credit for 6000 pupils is only $3 million. If 4000 of these pupils departed public schools for homeschooling, and the state no longer needed to pay the $5566 block grant on their behalf, the Education Fund would show a $20 million annual net saving.

Now there's something worth doing both for the kids and for the taxpayers. While they're at it, the legislature ought to remove the restriction on approved distance learning schools, and let them compete like all other independent schools.

Will the public school establishment scream? Of course it will. That's because their concern is (public) Schools First! It ought to be SchoolChildren First!

One Big School System
January 2002

What does it mean for a state to have One Big School System? For the answer to that, look at the only state that actually has one, Hawaii.

Hawaii has 273 public schools spread over seven islands. They have 190,000 students and employ 12,000 teachers. There are no county or local school boards. The system, almost twice the size of Vermont's, is run from Oahu by the elected State Board of Education.

The state pays all education bills. There is no education property tax, local or statewide. Where all the money goes is something of a mystery. The state auditor has repeatedly criticized sloppy financial management at the Department of Education (DOE). The Department is noted for simply ignoring the financial reporting requirements established by the legislature.

Whenever a principal pleads for school repairs or more space, the state Board decides whether, when, and how much. The work is scheduled and controlled by the state Department of Accounting and General Services. (As a reform experiment, a few schools are now allowed to spend up to $10,000 to hire a local plumber to fix leaks, etc.) In 2001 there was a $640 million backlog of school repairs and maintenance.

The state superintendent (commissioner) appoints district superintendents with the approval of the state Board. The state superintendent cannot even hire and fire his own staff without Board approval. The legislature fixes the number of teachers to be hired, and where they will teach. They are state government employees, hired by the central office. They all belong to one of three labor unions. Their pay is set by statewide collective bargaining agreements.

After two years on the job, all teachers get permanent tenure. Their union contract gives teachers the right to displace teachers with less seniority anywhere in the state. Thus the most experienced teachers end up teaching the least challenged pupils in the most upscale schools.

Dr. Libby Oshiyama, now president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools and a 26-year veteran of working with at-risk kids in Hawaii, says "The school system is dehumanizing and insulting to children, parents, teachers and principals. A lot of that has to do with scale. Hawaii has the most hidebound, calcified and controlling system in the United States."

Naturally, any union's emphasis is on better pay and job security. "The teachers are willing to do everything to make sure our public schools improve, " said teacher union spokeswoman Danielle Lum. "And if going on strike is what they have to do, then going on strike is what they will do." "Making sure our public schools improve" translated into a 22% pay raise for teachers. And they did go on strike, statewide, in March 2001, for three weeks. Professional excellence and student achievement are scarcely on the radar screen.

Because their salary, benefits and job security depend on a contract ratified by the legislature, it is absolutely vital that the unions control the legislature. And they do.

Every bill introduced to decentralize power over public schools has been summarily killed. Charter school conversion legislation was passed, but it required the charter schools to keep the former school's union staff and their union contracts. The parents who pushed for the charter soon found that the union contract told them how to run their school. The teachers in "New Century" charter schools authorized in 2000 are still state employees, working under the same state union contract as other public schools. Even so, the state Board has thrown every conceivable roadblock into the path of charter school applicants.

By any standard, the quality of education for Hawaii's schoolchildren is a disaster. On the NAEP math tests, for instance, Hawaii barely edges out Mississippi for last. Honolulu Advertiser columnist Cliff Slater says "the single advantage of a statewide system is to the school unions' leadership. They can exercise control more easily with state-centered power. They would have less control with a countywide system, even less with one that is districtwide, and little or none from an individual charter-school based system. That is why the teachers union, the principals union and the United Public Workers union fight local control all the time."

Hawaii's story ought to be of considerable interest to Vermonters. Unless Act 60 is thrown overboard soon, its coming fiscal crash will necessarily lead to full state financing coupled with centralized cost controls and a statewide teachers contract. Gov. Howard Dean, who can see perfectly well where Act 60 is heading, has for years been calling for spending controls on local education spending, and has endorsed the idea of a statewide teachers contract.

Fortunately, there is a way to keep Vermont from turning into One Big School System. It's called Schoolchildren First: giving parents the money to send their children to the school of their choice. Its public school tuition certificates and tax credit-funded independent school scholarships will call forth many diverse and efficient educational providers. Competition among many providers will force complacent public schools to respond to what parents want, or else their pupils and revenue will disappear.

As A. Kam Napier, managing editor of Honolulu magazine, concluded after a powerful analysis of what's wrong with Hawaii's system, "Let parents choose. And let the money follow that choice, so that successful schools thrive and unsuccessful schools wither away. This is the only way to free parents and children from the tyranny of government schools and provide for the diversity of educational experiences parents and students need."

Schoolchildren First
July 2001

What should the focus of Vermont education policy be? Schools? Or Schoolchildren?

That’s the question posed by an important new report published July 17 by the Ethan Allen Institute, entitled Schoolchildren First. The goal of the report is to expand and improve high quality educational opportunities for all of Vermont's children. To achieve that goal, the report proposes to shift the focus of education policy from "schools" to "schoolchildren". Its plan would for the first time empower all the parents of all of Vermont's children to choose the kind of education that they believe is best for their children.

Everyone's child is different. Some thrive in a disciplined environment. Some do better with student-centered learning. Some prefer traditional subject matter. Some prefer a curriculum built around a theme, such as art, music, science, community service, or work opportunities. Some want moral and religious values integrated with their schoolwork.

About eight percent of Vermont’s parents choose independent schools, or homeschooling, as better for their children than public schools. If the parents are wealthy, this is easy. The parents of thousands of kids, however, make real sacrifices to make it possible for their children to attend what they think is the most suitable school, rather than saving the money and allowing the government to assign their child to a public school.

For 132 years parents in (today) 90 Vermont towns have had a choice of schools for their children to attend. In those towns parents can send their children to any public or independent school, in or out of the state, except for sectarian schools.

Schoolchildren First proposes to expand that educational choice system to all parents and all children in all towns of the state. It also proposes a tax credit mechanism that will generate private contributions to underwrite scholarships for pupils wishing to attend faith-based schools not now eligible to receive public tuition payments.

Schoolchildren First proposes no major departure in school financing. There is no magic pot of money that will allow the repeal of the two state property taxes. The report does propose to eliminate one of the state property taxes - the so-called sharing pool - by increasing the other state property tax. Much as most Vermonters would like to reduce the dependence on the property tax for the support of education, there appears to be no feasible way of doing so.

What about "local control"? "Local control" in education means to most Vermonters that local taxpayers vote local taxes to pay for local education. The Supreme Court put an end to that era with its Brigham decision. Despite some complicated accounting methods, the fact is that all the funds for education are now levied by the state, and disbursed by the state. Act 60 is leading the state into creating One Big School System. Running such a system from Montpelier is possible, but long distance management of a government education monopoly would not be good for Vermont's kids.

Schoolchildren First recognizes that the state will continue to levy all the taxes to support education. It proposes that instead of the state paying out the funds to 251 captive local school districts, the state pay the funds out to parents to enable them to choose the educational opportunities they think are best for their children. It replaces the disappearing "local control" at the town level with real "local control" at the family level.

Why all this now? Because, the report points out in detail, Act 60 is steadily running aground. Without the annual $36 million sharing pool subsidy (voted by the legislature in each of the past three years), support for Act 60 will steadily dwindle. The current business slowdown, plus the escalating fiscal demands of the Medicaid program, mean that there is not likely to be any surplus to bail out Act 60 in years to come.

More and more Vermonters are realizing that it’s time to find a replacement for Act 60. Schoolchildren First is a well-conceived replacement. It’s based on experience in other choice states like Florida and Arizona. It makes a strong case that the parental choice and competition among schools will go further to satisfy consumers - parents and their children - than a system where government makes the decisions for everybody’s child. It complies with the equity requirement of the Supreme Court’s Brigham mandate.

Not surprisingly, three liberal Democratic Senators (Shumlin, Rivers, and McCormack) called a news conference to denounce Schoolchildren First. They said that such a parental choice plan would undermine public schools; low income people would find that being able to choose their children’s school is “fool’s gold”; and it looked (to Sen. McCormack) like this plan was the creation of the much-despised (by him) “Christian Right”. It will be interesting to see how thoughtful Vermont parents respond to those attacks - especially parents who are unhappy with their child’s education and wish they could afford to choose a more suitable one, public or independent, secular or religious.

Looking Beyond Act 60
May 2001

As the 2001 legislative session draws to a close, it has become apparent that there are not likely to be any significant changes to the controversial education finance law, Act 60. It won't be for want of trying.

House Speaker Walt freed (R-Dorset) offered a plan that would have increased the state's per pupil block grant from $5383 to $6500. If towns voted to spend more than that, they could do so without participating in the unpopular sharing pool, which would be abolished. The Freed plan froze the statewide property tax rate at the present $1.10, and would have required an additional $81 million a year. Freed proposed paying for it with $45 million from a one cent sales tax increase, $20 million from expected state surpluses, and $15 million from unspecified sources. Ways and Means Chair Dick Marron (R-Stowe) later produced another version of the plan, raising the state property tax rate to $1.26, but eventually the House abandoned the effort for want of strong support for any version.

The Senate Finance Committee generated another plan. It would have raised the statewide property tax from $1.10 to $1.33, and the per pupil block grant from $5383 to $6200. It would also have expanded the income sensitivity provisions, and capped sharing pool payments by the property-wealthy towns. This latter provision clearly ran afoul of the Supreme Court's 1996 Brigham decision, which forbids the wealthier towns from spending their own tax dollars on their own schools without some form of sharing. This plan passed the Senate on May 16, but the bill is not likely to be considered by the House in the remaining week of the 2001 session.

Apparently efforts to "reform" Act 60 have ground to a halt. And yet Act 60 has increasingly serious fiscal and political problems.

The 2000 legislature decided to shift from the original idea of "equalized yield" - where all the towns separately voted their school budgets and together paid the bills - to "predictable yield", where the sharing pool spending was underwritten by the state budget. Gov. Howard Dean correctly noted a year ago that this shift will "be the end of Act 60". He has repeatedly expressed concern about cost controls in a system where towns vote inflated budgets in the expectation that somebody else will pay the extra costs, and where property wealthy towns raise tax deductible donations to avoid having to share their tax bases with the poorer towns.

What happens, then, when the next fiscal crunch comes, either from a flagging state economy, or from growing costs of other programs, notably Dean's Vermont Health Access Plan? The timid "reform" plans of this year's House and Senate are unlikely to appear as much of a solution. Bailing out Act 60 as presently defined will require raising the sales tax, or the income tax, or the state property tax, or all three, plus imposing state spending controls on local school districts and perhaps a statewide teachers contract. Each of these ingredients has a legion of enemies.

Real reform will require going outside the present Act 60 box. One way would be to simply give up the increasingly fictitious notion of "local control" and recognize that the Five Supreme Legislators have put the state on the path to One Big School System. The state would raise all the money for education, distribute it, and police its use. Local school boards would eventually have little to do, and wither away. New Brunswick, which went through this evolution since enacting their version of Act 60 in 1967, abolished local school boards four years ago because they had no remaining responsibilities and merely groused about the provincial management of their school systems.

If the Brigham decision is accepted as a constitutional requirement, there are only two realistic alternatives to watching Act 60 slide into One Big School System.

One is a radical reorganization of local government into 40 largely self-governing shires, as proposed in The Vermont Papers (Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, 1989). That proposal was built upon a shire financing scheme which, ironically, would be in compliance with the Supreme Court's Brigham requirement. The shires would have an equalized per capita tax base, from which shire governments could raise such funds as they found proper to fund such public programs as their citizens found desirable.

The other alternative, slightly less radical, would be to have the state raise all of the funds for education, and distribute those funds directly to the parents of Vermont's 113,000 school age children. Those parents would in turn choose the schooling they found most suitable for their children from a wide range of providers: traditional public schools, charter schools, independent schools, religious schools, alternative schools, company schools, mentoring, home schooling, and who knows what else. This alternative would create healthy competition among providers to attract and retain customers, in place of the present government monopoly schooling. "Local control" would shift from increasingly impotent local school boards (under act 60) to increasingly empowered parents.

Act 60 is not dead yet. The effort to tinker with it will resume next year. But Vermonters should really start thinking ahead now to the day when the Act 60 "reformers" give up, and a wholly new system comes to life.

Fraudulent Choice for Vermont Parents
May 2000

In his 1998 state of the state message Gov. Howard Dean offered a strong defense of parental choice in education, provided, of course, that the parents choose a public school controlled by the state Education Department and organized by the teachers union, the Vermont NEA.

Over two years have passed since Gov. Dean's extremely modest call to action - a call which was notably not repeated in this year's message. This month the House finally responded by acting on the "public school choice bill" (S. 203.) The Vermont NEA can take a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that thanks to its diligent lobbying efforts the resulting bill is, at best, close to worthless. At worst, it lays the groundwork for the extermination of such parental choice as now exists in Vermont.

The bill was passed by the House May 4 on a 99-30 vote, and was subsequently sent to the Governor with only a few minor amendments. It inches slightly away from the present Vermont standard of "no parental choice at all in towns that have public schools, unless parents can afford to buy their kid's way out." Starting in the fall of 2002, the lesser of six dissatisfied high school pupils, or 3% of a school's enrollment, can transfer from any public high school to any other public high school in its designated region. Elementary school pupils are left out altogether. There are plenty of exemptions for high schools that don't want to allow even this much parental choice. The bill specifies that even this pitiful effort will be terminated after five years.

In an effort to stimulate some slight movement toward a broader parental choice program, Rep. Frank Mazur (R-So. Burlington) offered an amendment to require a committee study of the merits of charter schools. These are independently chartered and operated public schools, over a thousand of which are now offering real choices to parents in 36 other states. The education establishment - led by the Vermont School Boards Association and the NEA - managed to beat this back on a 67-68 vote. These vested interests can't risk even a peek into what they fearfully see as the Pandora's Box of charter schools. Why? Because if charter schools caught on in Vermont they would operate outside of school board and union control, and thus subvert their near-monopoly power over public education.

Vermonters for Better Education greeted House passage of S. 203 with a statement noting that the bill was little more than a fig leaf to allow some legislators to hide from their constituents "the naked truth that they have no intention of ever supporting a real school choice program." Vermonters for Educational Choice (VEC), the parental choice lobby, "declined to support" the bill.

VEC's unwillingness to support the bill was not just a protest against the bill's absurdly limited choice provisions. VEC is convinced that the public high school choice mechanism in S. 203 has been purposefully designed to create a framework for regionalizing the governance of public schools. The ultimate goal, expressed by then-State Education Board chair Diane Wolk in Senate testimony on March 13, is the creation of sixteen high school regions under state control.

The creation of these sixteen "public high school choice regions" would end the venerable and highly popular tuition town system. In operation since 1869, this system allows parents of high schoolers in some 90 towns to send their children to any approved high school of their choice, public or non-sectarian independent, in or out of the state, at public expense. Since under the plan envisioned by the architects of S. 203 every present tuition town would then find itself in one of these new public high school choice regions, all the high schoolers in those towns would have to attend a public high school. They would no longer be entitled to choose an independent school. The fact that the House manager of the bill was retired superintendent George Cross (D- Winooski), one of the most stubborn defenders of the public school monopoly in the legislature, gives credence to VEC's fears.

Thousands of Vermont parents are eager to get their kids out of public high schools that they view as having feeble academic standards, lax discipline, refusal to recognize religious values, morally subversive curricula, hazing, child medication excesses, condom distribution, drug use, invasive family questionnaires, political correctness, union domination, and a host of other afflictions. Others challenge these criticisms as misplaced or faulty, and defend the public schools. But in a free country the unhappy parents have the right to come to such conclusions, and they should also have the right to transfer their children to an educational environment that avoids what they see as the unacceptable defects of their local public school.

The new public school choice bill offers practically no real parental choice. It may well be, as VEC suspects, a mortal threat to the choice now enjoyed by parents in tuition towns. Hopefully concerned parents will not be fooled by a bill containing so little merit, and so much menace.

A Tiger Behind Every Door
March 2000

Vermont is now in the third year of Act 60, the earthshaking education finance reform of 1997. Its political dynamics are now becoming clear, as are the hard choices that legislators will soon have to make to keep Act 60 from collapsing.. As in the old fairy tale, policy makers will soon discover that there is a tiger behind every door. Every step needed to keep Act 60 working is fraught with dire political consequences.

Act 60 created two new state property taxes to pay for public education. The first one was straightforward: the state levied a tax rate of $1.10 per $100 of equalized grand list value across the state. When added to other state revenues earmarked for education, this now produces $5377 per pupil, which is returned to the towns as a block grant.

The second state tax is more subtle. All the town school meetings vote budgets. The resulting spending per pupil in each town is now greater than the $5377 per pupil received through the Act 60 block grant. Where do the towns get the additional money needed to get from $5300 per pupil to $6000 or $7000?

The spending amounts in excess of the block grant receipts are pooled, and divided by the same tax base as that of the state property tax. This yields an equalized rate, which is then applied to all the property in all the towns to produce a pool ("the shark pool") of additional money. Funds from this pool are distributed to the towns equally per pupil. This "equalized yield" mechanism taxes property-rich towns and sends the proceeds to property-poor towns.

As intended by the authors of Act 60, these two mechanisms together provide a way for the state to tax all property and distribute the proceeds equally to all children. By adding the second process, the state can maintain the notion that local voters still have something to say about how much their town spends on schools.

The state can also guarantee the yield of this "shark pool" by pumping money into it. Every dollar injected from state sources is one dollar less that has to be taken from property-rich towns and given to property-poor towns. So the state injection alleviates the otherwise painful results of the shark pool.. In FY 2000 the legislature voted $36.8 million of the surplus for this purpose.

In 1997 the Joint Fiscal Office published estimates of expected property tax revenues for education under Act 60. For FY 1999 they were right on the mark. For FY 2000 their estimate will be $80 million too low. In FY 2001 the shortfall will be $109 million. The following year it is projected at $147 million. This represents an increase in education property taxes of 27% in three years! What is happening here?

What is happening is that "receiving" school districts have figured out that the smart game is to vote huge school budgets, which "sending" towns will be forced to subsidize. What the receiving towns get back from the shark pool is, to them, "free money".

So long as the state uses a huge portion of a surplus to subsidize the shark pool, the property rich towns will feel less pain, and the political rebellion will be postponed. But when the surplus dries up, or is diverted to pay for other programs like Medicaid, mental health, or whatever, the "feeding" towns will one after another become "food", as Burlington already has. When the great majority of towns become sending towns, the demise of Act 60 will be at hand.

How can result this be avoided? There is a political tiger behind every door.

The state could raise the $1.10 state property tax rate to produce more money to increase the block grant and reduce the obligations of the shark pool. Not a popular idea.

The state could impose spending controls on local school budgets, thus wiping out the largely imaginary "local control" offered by Act 60. Not a popular idea.

The state could impose a statewide teacher contract, necessarily including regional cost variations, and hold down teacher pay to contain costs. Not a popular idea (to put it mildly) with the politically powerful Vermont NEA, the teachers union.

The state could take over the listing of property everywhere in the state, and rapidly jack up assessed values so that the statewide property tax produces higher revenues at the same rate. This is called "kicking the dog". It is intensely unpopular with taxpayers. (This is what produced the historic Proposition 13 property tax revolt in California in 1978.)

Local taxpayers have slowly figured out that their outrage at escalating property taxes for education should be directed at the state, not at local voters. Act 60 got rid of purely local spending decisions. Local voters can vote a budget, but how much local taxpayers must pay in property taxes to fund that budget is determined elsewhere by the actions of many other players, all trying to game the system to get more money. When the outrage grows, it will be directed at Montpelier and Act 60.

When will all this happen? Well, the FY 2003 education property tax spending is likely to be $180 million over the trend line projected in 1997. And the huge state surpluses won't go on forever. So the legislature and Governor elected this November will probably be the ones who will have to start opening the doors. They are not going to like what they find.

Grassroots Education Reform
February 2000

Reform of public education comes in many packages: charter schools, parental choice, merit pay, phonics, high-tech teaching, teacher testing, privatization, and many more. Putting these reforms in place faces a major obstacle. Almost all of the current reform proposals require the state board of education, commissioner, school boards, principals, superintendents, and above all the teachers' union to change something they have become very comfortable doing their way (or not doing at all.) Because of their resistance to change, this collection of interests has become collectively known to education reformers as The Blob. (There are some good people within The Blob, but they are often very frustrated.)

The various components of The Blob don't want to change their practices because they are making out pretty well with the deal they have managed to arrange for themselves. Innovations that promise better results for kids run into opposition if they would disrupt routines, responsibilities and power relationships among those in charge of the public education system.

Take public school parental choice. This isn't much of a reform - it's like being allowed to deposit your mail in any post office of your choice - but it is at least based on the idea that parents should be able to choose which school their kids attend, even if their choice is limited to government-run schools.

In his state of the state message in 1998 Gov. Howard Dean declared himself in favor of "empowering parents and children to choose their own public schools." The legislation to effect this (S. 203) is still resting quietly in the House education committee. Because The Blob is threatened by any kind of parental choice, the bill is so shrunken and restricted that Vermonters for Educational Choice, the reform lobby, now hopes it disappears.

Rep. Howard Crawford (R-Burke) has a different and better approach to wide-ranging education reform. Instead of proposing to change the entire public school system for everybody, Rep. Crawford's bill (H. 827) proposes to let the voters of local supervisory unions create their own "educational freedom districts" Once the idea is approved by the voters in the towns, a local commission goes to work to design its own local education reform plan.

After a year of planning and public meetings, the commission would present its plan to the voters for approval. The plan could include a wide range of promising educational features such as unified governance, full parental choice of public, independent, alternative, charter, and parochial schools, home schooling assistance, dual high school and college credits, work-study alternatives, public school contracting, teacher testing, alternative teacher certification, national testing, exemption from the state's "portfolio assessment" and Goals 2000 activities, and recertification of union representation. The district would sunset in four years, unless reapproved.

One great virtue of the educational freedom district proposal is that it lets local parents, educators, and civic leaders redesign their school systems in a way that makes sense to them. They can choose among a wide range of reforms to put in place. This possibility would certainly cause a great deal of interest, discussion, and citizen involvement. Citizens concerned about improving education would at last have the power to do something about it in their own communities, instead of carrying out instructions from Montpelier.

The other great virtue is that Crawford's bill doesn't require everybody - or for that matter anybody - to do anything. If the people of Wilmington or Enosburg Falls or Sharon want to try out their preferred reforms, it doesn't affect other towns that are content with the educational system they now have.

Even this local option feature, the bill will of course be staunchly opposed by The Blob. Why? Because citizen-initiated reforms might actually work somewhere, and then everybody else would be able to do the same thing in their towns. Before long Vermont would have a host of citizen-led, experience-based education reforms outside The Blob's control. What a great idea!

Court Bungles Chittenden Case
June 1999

On June 11 the Vermont Supreme Court, 455 days after oral argument, finally issued an opinion in the Chittenden school tuition case.  (By comparison, the Court produced its sweeping constitutional decision in Brigham only 51 days after oral argument.)

Unlike in Brigham, where the Court invented a new right out of thin air, in Chittenden the Court stared at the plain language of the Vermont Constitution and couldn’t understand what it said.

The Chittenden case arose when the town voted to pay tuition for 13 children at the Catholic Mt. St. Joseph Academy in nearby Rutland. The Court’s holding, concisely stated, is this: Article 3 of the Vermont Constitution provides that "no person... can be compelled to support any place of worship."  Religious instruction in an elementary or secondary school is religious worship. A town’s payment of tax dollars as tuition to a religious school, with no restrictions on the use of such payments to prevent them from being used for religious instruction, is prohibited by Article 3.

The Court of What’s Happenin’ Now, as it customarily does, solemnly declared that the plain words of the Constitution and the associated acts and statements of its authors are not enough to make clear what a provision ought to mean for us today.

Then the Court proceeded to wander off from the plain language of Article 3. The plain language is "No person can be compelled to support a place of worship." The central meaning, amply attested to by contemporary history, is that "No person can be compelled to support a place of worship."

Even though there were no religious schools in 1786, let's concede, for purpose of argument, that public tax dollars used to pay for pervasively sectarian secondary education is identical with paying to "support a place of worship".

The key language of Article 3 is "No person shall be compelled." As the Court notes, an 1801 Vermont law providing for support of ministers recognized this problem. It authorized a taxpayer to opt out of paying for churches and ministers if the taxpayer found their teachings to be repugnant to his conscience. The Court notes with approval that even this exemption drew criticism from the Council of Censors, and the Ministerial Act was soon repealed.

But a perusal of the actual Council of Censors report of 1806 contains no coherent argument as to why the Ministerial Act violated Article 3. Instead, the Council rested its case on consequences, namely, that the act "engendered ill will", presumably directed by those willing to support churches against those who wanted their money back.

A plain reading of Article 3 would conclude that, as the article says, "No person can be compelled to support a place of worship (or religious school)”. As the Court has often stated, the provisions of the Bill of Rights are self-executing, unless they have something to do with protecting property rights, in which case they are not.  Taxpayers aggrieved by the use of their tax dollars to pay tuition for children attending faith based schools chosen by their parents in tuition towns that have voted to authorize it, could simply be given a discount, upon request, to relive them of paying the disputed amount.

In the Chittenden case, $39,000 was budgeted to pay tuition for 13 children to Mt. St. Joseph's Academy for school year 1996-97. The property taxes collected by the town for education that year were $1,417,607, from about 700 property tax payers. The MSJ tuitions would have made up 2.7% of the education tax bill.

What fraction of the taxpayers would actually take a stand on the "compelled support" clause to demand a discount?  If half demanded a discount, the available tuitions for MSJ would be reduced from $3000 to $1500. Some parents would not be able to afford the $1500 difference, and would switch their children to Rutland High School (tuition $6672). If 10 of the 13 did so, the town’s tuition bill would increase from $39,000 (13 to MSJ) to $71,220 (10 to RHS, 3 to MSJ at $1500).

Though illustrative, this is now an unreal exercise, since Act 60 has superseded the Foundation Plan. It does however suggest that under such a “discount to prevent compelled support” arrangement, few taxpayers not associated with the public schools, the teachers union, or the ACLU would bother to request a small discount.

Admittedly, the Chittenden case did not come before the Court as an action by an aggrieved taxpayer compelled to support religion against his will. It came as an “establishment of religion” case between town and state, and was decided by the Court as a “compelled support” case. But in any case the 2000 legislature, given the political will, could easily counter the ruling.

The most obvious remedy (there are others) would be for the legislature to explicitly allow tuition towns to pay tuition to faith based independent schools, and let those taxpayers who object to a small fraction of their state property taxes being used for that purpose take a discount or obtain a refund.

That’s exactly what Article 3 contemplated. Such a bill would of course face fierce resistance from the public educational establishment. Their interest is not so much protecting the rights of dissenters, as preventing Vermont parents from choosing the kind of education that seems to them best suited for their children.

Draining the Shark Pool
September 1998

Gov. Howard Dean is suddenly singing a different tune about Act 60. The focus of his current concern is the so-called "shark pool", a major target of critics from high-wealth towns hit hard by the new act. First, it is necessary to understand clearly how the education revenue-raising side of Act 60 works. There are in effect two "state" property taxes in Act 60. The first and more easily understood is the statewide property tax levied on all taxable real property at the flat rate of $1.10 (phased in by 2001). The proceeds of this tax will provide for block grants to local districts of just over $5000 per pupil. The second and more confusing state property tax works this way. Of the 251 school districts, a handful will decide that this block grant is enough to run their schools. They will take the block grant money and be heard from no more.

The voters in the remaining towns will vote budgets higher than $5000 per pupil. The sum of this over-$5000 spending defines the amount this second tax must raise. These, say, 240 towns now comprise a new "virtual" state. A second state property tax is levied on the total property tax base of this new 240-town state, at a rate sufficient to raise the prescribed spending. Since the tax base from these 240 towns is pooled and taxed at a single rate, wealthy towns will end up being taxed far more than the extra money their voters voted for their local school budget.

This is the "shark pool". In effect, it taxes Stowe and Sherburne heavily and sends the money to Worcester and Hardwick. Naturally, wealthy-town taxpayers think they are getting robbed, giving rise to the "town against town" resentment.

This second equalized state property tax was a direct consequence of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Brigham case. In that case the Court ruled that "children who live in property-rich districts should be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to similar educational revenues."

A year ago Gov. Dean was scornful of critics of the "shark pool", and defended it this way: "If you [a town] do spend above the statewide average, you're going to be taxed substantially above the statewide average. That's one of the things in this bill I like." In April the governor denounced a New York Times article on the rich-town anger over the shark pool as "trash". But on October 1, in his biennial campaign announcement that he intended to make education a number one priority in his next term, Gov. Dean stated that he wanted to alter or even eliminate the shark pool, but to date had not found a workable alternative.

There is, of course, one obvious alternative: roll the two state property taxes into one, with a uniform $1.40 rate on all taxable property. Anticipating this, Senate Republicans in 1997 tried to make any increase in the state levy subject to popular referendum approval, but they were outvoted by the Democrats, some of whom undoubtedly suspected what they might have to do to fix their handiwork. Increasing the state property tax rate by 28% even before the old rate took effect would probably be politically fatal to those who agreed to do it. Another alternative would be to replace the shark pool levy with other revenues. But an increased income tax runs into strong resistance from both Gov. Dean and the Republicans, who are well aware of the negative effects income tax rate increases have on job creation; and increasing the sales tax arouses the strong opposition of Democrats and Connecticut Valley Republicans.

A gross receipts tax is under study as a replacement for all of the education property tax revenues. Unfortunately, since a gross receipts tax would have to replace $175 million raised by the present 5% sales tax and also provide for certain important exemptions, the resulting GRT rate would have to approach 5%. This high rate would exacerbate the problems of a GRT, probably fatally.

The Vermont Coalition of Municipalities argues that its Education Revenue Sharing plan, which has no state property tax, would comply with Brigham. But even the Coalition's own legal analysis notes that the Supreme Court would have to be convinced that equalizing tax burdens is what it had in mind when it decreed "substantially equal opportunity to have access to similar educational revenues". Since the ERS plan would still allow wealthy-town voters to impose high tax burdens on themselves without making any payments into a pool, it seems clear that the Court would have to stretch impossibly far to approve such a plan without abandoning its holding in Brigham.

Vermont's basic problem is a Supreme Court that tortured history, obscured key definitions, and abandoned sound legal process to impose its radical egalitarian dogma on a legislature whose liberal majority was all too eager to buy into the game. Until the people's representatives come to grips with the problem of a self-politicized Supreme Court, we are probably stuck with some version of the despised shark pool, Gov. Dean's election-year conversion notwithstanding.

New Brunswick's Lesson for Vermont
June 1998

What will Vermont education look like after a few years of Act 60? The act's critics claim that we are on the road to a centralized, state-run, bureaucratic, and disastrously mediocre public education system. The act's defenders tout the funding equity made possible by the statewide property tax and per pupil grants, and even argue that Act 60 actually increases local control of our schools. Both sides should examine an almost exact parallel to Act 60 that has taken place just 250 miles from Montpelier.

In 1967 New Brunswick (population: 725,000) adopted an education finance law - the "Equal Opportunity Program" - that made it unique among Canada's provinces. Up to that time, public education was controlled by local school boards and financed by local revenues. In words familiar to today's Vermonters, the 1967 law "ensured that New Brunswickers had equal access to educational opportunities, and equitable funding wherever they lived. "

The 1967 act achieved this by instituting a province-wide education property tax. The proceeds of this tax and the provincial sales tax go into a consolidated fund from which the province pays virtually 100 percent of the costs of the public schools.

The provincial Ministry of Education allocates funds to the various school districts, and controls all uses of the funds. The distribution follows guidelines on teacher and administrative salaries, school operation and maintenance, and transportation. The Ministry funds all capital construction and maintains centralized control of textbooks, workers compensation, and the government's share of the retirement system.

In 1997 the government took stock of the previous 30 years' experience, and announced a "Renewed Education System". Driving the new act were rising costs, declining tax resources, and the discovery that "the current layers of administration and decision-making, together with the competing forces of many interest groups, are formidable barriers to improvement in the system. " In other words, the provincial government had gotten tired of paying for too much of the empty shadow of "local control".

The new system included mandatory state standards and, in the name of efficiency, "new structures to support learning". Here is how it is described in a government fact sheet: "Since the late 1960s, the education system has continued to operate with a school board structure which had already lost the significant roles of local taxation and setting working conditions and salaries. Later, the province assumed all responsibility for collective bargaining... Confusion, relating to unclear lines of authority and roles and responsibilities, is linked to the overlapping authority of the province and the [local] boards."

The "new structure" is simple and predictable. Local school boards were abolished. Eight Superintendents (reduced from 18) have become regional employees of the Ministry of Education. New "school parent committees" will be allowed to offer "input", but all decisions will be made by the Ministry.

What of educational outcomes? Since the province conducts only its own homegrown tests, it is not possible to tell how or whether New Brunswick children are performing better in 1998 than in 1967, under the older system.

Back in Vermont, here's where we are with Act 60: A new "reform" based on "Equal Opportunity". The state property tax replaces the local education property tax. A state fund will pay virtually 100 percent of local education costs. The state establishes standards for all schools. The state requires strategic performance plans of all schools. The state assumes the power to close a school.

In place in New Brunswick, but yet to come in Vermont: The installation of local "Directors of Education" accountable to and removable by the Ministry. The statewide teachers contract. The conversion of superintendents to state employees. Abolition of local school boards as wasteful overlapping bureaucracies. Reduction of "local control" to input sent to the Ministry from PTA meetings.

The only curious part of this story is that it took New Brunswick 30 years to achieve the centralized unitary school system that is the inevitable result of full state funding of local schools. Barring a political revolution, the same results should be attained much more quickly in Vermont.

Educational Financing Lessons from California
December 1997

"Quality Counts" is the title of a major report on education in the states released earlier this year (1997) by Education Week magazine, the voice of the U. S. educational establishment. The state that took the biggest hit for declining quality of education was California, and the reason should be of interest to Vermonters.

"It's been almost twenty years since California voters turned their backs on their highly touted public school system and triggered its long painful decline from the top to the bottom of American education, " wrote Education Week. "The primary tool of destruction was Proposition 13, enacted by a stunning 68 percent of the voters in 1978. The act shifted the funding burden to the state by capping local property taxes and reducing by more than half the amount of local revenues available for education and other public services." (emphasis added)

Prop 13 was the fruit of a taxpayer voter rebellion occasioned by two hard facts. First, it was very hard for local government to raise property tax rates. California voters have a long history of tax rebellion, and any increase in the tax rate was likely to lead to swift retribution at the polls.

Second, thanks to a notorious assessment scandal in 1965, California governments have exceedingly responsive property assessment systems. All parcels must be reassessed on a three year cycle. In the inflationary years 1974-78 California housing assessments increased at a real rate of l0.4% per year. From 1976 to 1977 alone the assessments jumped an astonishing 20.8%.

So even with the tax rates frozen, the skyrocketing assessments meant that home owners faced rapidly increasing property tax bills. The central provision of Prop 13 "solved" this problem by decreeing that housing assessments could not be increased above the 1976 level by more than two percent a year, regardless of the actual housing market, unless the property were sold, in which case the appraised value would become the full market value.

The opponents of Prop 13 corresponded politically to the supporters of Act 60 here in Vermont. They prophesied all sorts of disasters - slashed budgets, the layoff of 270,000 public employees, abandoned services, collapsing schools. Little of that was realized (local government employment declined by only 18,000, and in a few years even that loss had been recovered ) . But a completely different disaster materialized.

Because local governments could no longer feast off the rising assessment banquet table, they went to the state capitol for aid. And they got it. Within a year state aid to local governments jumped from $9 billion to $15 billion. "This 70% increase in dependence [on state financing] means that local government has suffered a substantial loss of autonomy, " wrote historian James Ring Adams in 1984. "This decline in local self government amounts to a serious weakening of citizen participation."

Unlike today's Vermont, whose state government will be tapping the local property tax base to finance its basic per pupil grants, California's increased state aid had to come from state sales and income taxes. The demands of other state programs limited the amount that the state could send back to local government. Thus California's school spending steadily dropped from among the top ten in the nation to 35th, ten percent below the national average. And the result is what Education Week ruefully described this year as the "destruction" of California education.

Act 60's state property tax revenues may prevent the sharp decline in educational spending that occurred in California. There are, however, two major lessons for Vermont from the California experience. One is that the more the financing of public education is controlled by the state, and not by local school districts, the more local citizens will abandon what were once "their schools" to the directives, plans, mandates and fads visited upon them from Montpelier. The schools, once the focus of community support, are likely increasingly to become administrative units of a Great New System, with predictable negative results in educational quality.

A second , closely related lesson is that once the costs of local education have become a major item in the state budget, the state (Governor and legislature) can not be indifferent to local spending practices. Even long before Act 60 Governor Dean was calling for state cost controls on local school spending and a statewide teachers' contract. To that repertoire he has now added early retirement for highly paid senior teachers, and costly penalties for local districts that wish to spend well above the state average per pupil cost. The last of these items has been legislated as Act 60's "shark pool" (the forced redistribution of local revenues among towns whose voters vote a higher school budget than Act 60's basic state grant).

Reacting to the Governor's recent criticism of "receiving" towns announcing sharply increased school budgets, the pro-Act 60 Rutland Herald recently editorialized that "the power to make those decisions [about what to do with new revenues] is the fundamental substance of local government in Vermont, and even if it makes Howard Dean and his fellow Democrats nervous, Vermonters' freedom to raise or lower their taxes must be respected."

Yes, it should, and it would have been helpful if that point had been more forcefully made by Vermont's pro-redistribution editorial pages during the debate over Act 60 last spring. But alas, thanks to the state's new and vastly increased responsibility for educational finance under Act 60, every Vermont Governor, whether he or she likes it or not, will be forced to try one way after another to make local school districts control education costs. As local voters will soon find out, there is plenty of muscle in Act 60 to make sure Montpelier gets its way.

Local Control, R.I.P.
October 1997

Act 60, the much debated "Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1997", will preserve and expand local control of public education. Who says so? A chorus of the Act's defenders led by Gov. Howard Dean.

In an August letter to the Dorset school board, Gov. Dean confronted the critics head on: " I would argue that there is more local control in this law than exists today." Rep. Martha Heath (D-Westford), a member of the conference committee on Act 60, says "the school board that I serve on will have more local control as a result of the Act than we've had in many years." Senate Majority Leader Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), never one to waste time rebutting a foolish argument, simply declares : "Fallacy 13. 'Act 60 undermines local control.' No, it doesn't."

Are they right?

For years "local control" of public education has steadily eroded, especially since Education Commissioner Stephen Kaagan persuaded the apparently uncomprehending (Republican-controlled) legislature of 1982 to give the Board of Education broad rule making power over local schools. Act 60 indeed repeals the most infamous exercise of that power, the much-criticized Public School Approval Standards (but only, of course, after the PSA process has been completed in 1998.).

The question is, whatever the amount of local control surviving at the beginning of 1997, will there be more local control or less local control as a result of Act 60?

Bear in mind that Act 60 enthusiastically echoes the Supreme Court in requiring "educational opportunities which are substantially equal" throughout the state - notwithstanding the fact that neither the ACLU lawyers, nor the five Supreme Legislators, nor the legislature, was willing to define "educational opportunities". Whenever a local school board strikes out on its own, it can plausibly be argued that it will be departing from the state-set "equal educational opportunity" standard . So the whole thrust of Act 60 is to fit every school district within a matrix of goals, rules and standards that prevents any significant deviation from the Montpelier Vision.

Act 60 imposes new state school quality standards, presumably built on the state board's current "Common Core of Knowledge" (e.g., "asks meaningful questions", "makes healthy choices", "expresses self with power and purpose", etc.). Local school boards will have to create a "comprehensive action plan" to meet the new standards. They will have to comply with the state board's standards regarding "conditions, practices and resources". They will have to provide for "needs-based professional development" directly connected to "standards for student performance established by the state board and any other educational performance goals established by the state board" any time in the future.

If the commissioner determines that the locals are not playing ball, he or she will tell the locals what they must do. If the school fails to shape up within two years, the commissioner may recommend that the board assume administrative control of the schools, or close the schools and make the local school board tuition the students elsewhere.

Now if the state can set "school quality standards", sit in judgment of mandated "comprehensive action plans", and take over or shut down schools when it is not obeyed, the only "local control" left will be over things the state doesn't have the time or inclination to prescribe.

On the financing side, towns can no longer raise tax dollars to finance school budgets above their state basic grant, without subjecting themselves to forced tax sharing based on an unknown formula by which the state will announce what school property tax rate the town must levy. The town also has to collect the state tax on nonresidential property, conform to the state's listing requirements, collect the state's data, stop taxing machinery and inventory for education, and not enter into any new education tax stabilization agreements for business and industry.

As Act 60 unfolds, Vermonters are likely to find that all that is left of "local control" is control over lunch menus, bus routes, and initial hires. The other decisions will be made pursuant to Act 60's "statewide strategic education plan".

There are only two proximate outcomes of this mandated equality approach, neither of which permits any meaningful "local control". The most straightforward one is a state public school system, run by state-employed regional education managers, staffed by state-employed teachers in one statewide bargaining unit (one of Gov. Dean's favorite ideas), and paid for by state taxes. That would give Vermont one big school district the size of Boston's .

Act 60 takes the other path. Since local school boards and superintendents are too powerful politically to allow themselves to be abolished , they will survive to run local public schools in accordance with an increasingly complex and demanding array of state goals, mandates, plans, standards, and penalties. The potential builders, creators , and innovators among them - especially the ones who really care about what our children are learning, instead of stability, compliance and job security - will probably seek other outlets for their talents.

Parents who care about their children should ask: does such a system promise a better education for my child? Or will I soon be looking for ways to help my child escape from an overgrown, centrally controlled system that will increasingly exist for the benefit of the bureaucrats and providers who author and enforce all these standards and plans, but know and care little of what is good for our town and my child?

Any Way Out of Act 60?
September 1997

Nothing has taken effect besides the increases in five state taxes, but already a wave of opposition is building against the new education finance law, Act 60.

A "Vermont Coalition of Municipalities", chaired by selectman Jay Barrett of Fairlee, has recruited membership from some 42 towns. It is looking for a legal theory and a law firm to attack the new law in court. Killington businessman Bernard Rome, is running a series of newspaper ads against the act.

  • "Act 60 talks about improving educational quality, "says Rome, " but make no mistake: this act is founded on state control of our schools. State control of our local tax base. State redistribution of wealth. State bureaucracies, plans, mandates, approvals, fees and penalties."
  • He is speaking all over the state and has recruited over 300 volunteers for a new organization advocating repeal.

What is shaping up here is a titanic 16 month political upheaval in a state whose people were ready for property tax relief, but not ready for sweeping legislation which carried out the radical everybody-the-same spending mandate of the Supreme Court, coupled with the centralized control of local public education so long sought by legislative liberals.

The question that Vermonters will ultimately have to answer is this: is there some other way to get property tax relief without the undesirable effects of Act 60? If the answer is No, then Act 60 will stand. If the answer is Yes, then what is that alternative? Here are some proposals for change, some of which can be mixed and matched.

The most comprehensive and radical change would be to create a market based education system. The state would encourage the transformation of Vermont's public schools into de facto charter or independent schools, regulate them only for health and safety, fiscal accountability, and truthful advertising, and put the dollars in the hands of the parents to choose which offering they decide is best for their children. The resulting competition for the consumer's education dollars would make all schools far more entrepreneurial, improve performance, control costs, and increase parental responsibility. The state would still have to raise the money - probably $600 million - from somewhere.

Unfortunately some very powerful groups find any such idea totally unacceptable. Chief among them is the Vermont NEA teachers union, which quite correctly fears for the salaries, benefits, and job security of its members if parents choose to send their children to non-unionized schools. Similarly most of the public educational bureaucracy - superintendents, school boards, principals, PTA, etc. - are not enthusiastic about facing the challenge of competing for pupils without the comfortable protection of a government monopoly.

The market-based model leaves open the question of the high spending school which needs funds in addition to the uniform state scholarship presented by its customers. The ACLU is bound to complain in the courts if a (rich) town raised more money through local property taxes to subsidize a more costly town school. That would doubtless lead to another Supreme Court case.

Another and less sweeping idea is just to replace the state property tax with another tax. The only likely alternative is some version of the gross receipts tax proposed by Rep. Ruth Dwyer of Thetford, which attracted 57 votes in the House last spring.. The gross receipts tax would have an extremely broad base and a low rate. It would also have to raise enough to permit repeal of the retail sales and use tax ($180 million).

This idea looks very good to the voters of the "gold towns" who will be hit very hard by Act 60's state property tax, and to local school and town officials generally, who want to protect their only tax base against state invasion. But it will be opposed by those who offer presently untaxed services (lawyers, architects, dentists, auto mechanics, etc.) In addition, while using the total tax base allows a low rate like 2%, this brings with it some compounding and inequity problems. Solving those problems - by for example, taxing only value-added - shrinks the base and increases the rate.

Another approach would be to toss out Act 60 and help all but upper income Vermonters to pay their local school taxes by expanding the existing circuit breaker program. Gov. Dean actually proposed just such a plan last January, a month before the Brigham decision. This again would require a large increase in state funding through new taxes. It is very dubious that the Supreme Court would accept this approach, since it would leave local property taxes on unequal property wealth per pupil in the towns.

Assuming (regretfully) that legislators are unlikely to produce any new plan not in conformity with Brigham, what is the most attractive combination of proposals as an alternative to Act 60? Consider something that looks like this:

  • To reduce costs and stimulate quality, radically deregulate public education, actively encourage educational competition by charter and independent schools, and put the power of choice in the hands of consumers (parents). This would mean that the state would no longer have a public education system, any more than it now has public grocery or fuel oil systems.
  • To raise the money to finance the consumers, levy some form of a gross receipts or value added tax which also replaces the 5% sales tax; or impose a flat 1% state tax on all real property , with liberal transition provision for the gold towns; or (most likely) a combination of the two. Continue the circuit breaker program to aid low income taxpayers.

At least compared to the convolutions of Act 60, such a plan is conceptually simple, straightforward, and far more understandable to the ordinary parent and citizen. But its great virtue is that it will bring about really fundamental reform of education. It replaces government monopoly with consumer choice, an idea that has produced benefits to consumers almost everywhere it has been tried. It conforms to the spirit of the Clinton-Dean era, in which every public policy proposal must be justified as being "for the children".

What is good for the children, however, may not be so good for the educational institutions we are familiar with today. A market-based alternative would disrupt the comfortable arrangements of the state's public education industry: the unionized teachers and educational caregivers, superintendents, school boards, and state education officials. They will not go quietly into the world of competition and choice.

At school meeting time next spring, dismay over Act 60 will probably come to a head, with presently unpredictable results. But until major change is effected, Vermont will most likely be afflicted by a public educational system increasingly financed and controlled from Montpelier. More and more citizens will be likely to abandon their concern for their town schools, and more and more children will find themselves attending schools few care about except those paid to labor in the state's Act 60 megasystem. It is hard to see how this will prove to be any sort of reform.

Vermont's New Centralized Education Regime
June 1997

The "historic" education bill signed into law by Gov. Dean (Act 60) not only makes radical changes in the financing of education in Vermont. It also makes equally radical changes in the control of education.

Perhaps because there was so little debate in the House on the educational issues, the media decided early that the education provisions were far less important than finances. Even though there was a much hotter education quality debate in the Senate, the media drowned Vermonters in tax details, but left them pretty much in the dark about how Act 60 will change education itself.

  • In a sentence: Act 60 not only makes the state pay the bills for education, but it concentrates almost total power over local public schools in the state, and it pushes relentlessly forward toward medicalizing educational failures.

The bill, enthusiastic in conferring a right to "substantially equal educational opportunity", notably fails to define equal educational opportunity. About the best it can do is suggest "substantially equal access to a quality basic education". This is not very illuminating, but there are some clues hidden in the first 18 pages of the new act.

First, the bill parrots the Five Supreme Legislators in announcing that the 1786 Constitution declares the right to a public education as integral to our constitutional form of government, etc. Like much of the Court's highly political Brigham decision, this pronouncement is sheer fantasy, but it serves the purpose of the education Blob (educrats, school boards association, teachers union etc.) to keep as much education as possible under public (i.e., their) control. The Senate actually deleted this "public" bias, but the House conferees, worshipful of the Court and always sensitive to the needs of the teachers' union, forced it back into the final bill.

Second, the State Board of Education which will soon be running our schools was given extensive new powers to implement standards for student performance. A joint effort in the Senate by Democratic Leader Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) and Republican Leader Rob Ide (R-Caledonia) to insert the adjectives "academic and technical" before the word "standards" was beaten back.

That rejection can now be construed by the Blob as a mandate to the Board to proceed with more worthless "outcome based education" standards that attempt to gauge how students feel about themselves (and their parents, and global warming, and alternative sexual orientations, etc.) and how well they are "prepared to contribute to the democratic process", instead of making them demonstrate their mastery of academic and technical subject matter.

Third, to make sure that the much-feared (by the Blob) independent schools do not become more attractive by teaching students strong academic and technical curricula instead of watered-down Blob-approved standards, the bill requires independent schools to assess using the State's standards. Of course an independent school could pay little attention to the State's standards and help its students to score very well on tough academic standards. It would then, however, have to do a lot of explaining to its prospective customers when the state publishes its "poor" performance ratings.

Fourth, the new act gives the State Board vast new power to define "school quality standards" and "standards regarding conditions, practices and resources" of local schools, There will of course be the inevitable "statewide strategic action plan", sort of an Act 200 for your kids. Each school must also have its own a "comprehensive action plan" to improve student performance against the state-defined standards,

The idea that Vermont parents would produce educational excellence by choosing to send their children to schools the parents think are best, thus forcing all schools to compete for their customers, was far too radical to consider. Far better - and safer - to have the State Board define our educational goals, and develop a sweeping plan to mandate it on the locals.

The act also gives the Board its long sought power to put local schools into receivership if the locals have other ideas about their children. And it's perfectly logical; if the state is paying the bills, the locals will do it the state's way, or else the state will take over the local school and run it its way. An effort by McCormack and Ide to allow the state board, in dire cases, to declare a non-complying town a tuition town - so the parents can choose to relocate their children to better schools nearby - was summarily rejected. The bill declares that only the all-powerful State can take remedial action, not parents who are not trained to understand their children's best interests.

Fifth, the act makes another great leap into the medicalization of education problems. It used to be that students who didn't learn were thought to be dumb, or their teachers incompetent. Nowadays no one is dumb or incompetent - it's bad for self-esteem. Now the kids are sick, The act creates three "regional collaboratives" of education and human services employees to "help children prepare for and succeed in school ." It also authorizes expansion of the use of Medicaid funds to deal with the plague of sickness formerly known as low achievement.

The game here is that if an educational problem can be defined as a health problem, and the child-patient comes from a family with an income below 225% of the federal poverty level, two thirds of the bill for the "treatments" (by special educators, counselors, psychologists, mental health aides, etc.) can be passed on to Washington, at least until Congress gets wise.

Sixth, the State Board is charged with doing yet another study of "governance" reform, i.e., consolidating the 251 local school boards into something more easily managed by the State. Since the act vests control of local schools in Montpelier and makes local school boards increasingly irrelevant, the historic resistance to mega-supervisory unions will probably evaporate. The Montpelier educrats will get the eight mega-districts they have wanted since 1965, when Gov. Hoff tried and failed to bring that about.

Finally, parental choice took a beating in the final product. Led by the courageous Sen. Jeb Spaulding (D-Washington), the Senate, by an 18-12 vote, decreed full parental choice of non-sectarian public or independent schools starting in 2003. This was too much for the House conferees, ever mindful of the needs of the passionately anti-choice Vermont NEA. The Spaulding amendment quickly ended up on the conference room floor.

Sen. Barbara Snelling (R-Chittenden), a notable friend of public education for nearly 40 years, passed final judgment on the education provisions:

  • "There will be significant loss of local control over both financial and educational decisions, a prescription for eventual mediocrity."

She might have said "eventual and very, very costly mediocrity."

What, then, are concerned citizens and parents to do? One idea which ought to get a lot more attention as the provisions of the new act take effect is the Educational Freedom District. As proposed by Rep. Howard Crawford (R-Burke), voters in local supervisory districts could choose to "opt out" of the statewide education regime. Once that is done, their local school board could, with voter approval, implement a host of education reforms built around the ideas of high academic standards, healthy competition among providers, and decision making by parents, not by an increasingly centralized government which believes it always knows better than its subjects.

Such a pro-parent, pro-competition idea is of course doomed in any legislature that could so eagerly enact Act 60. After the full import of both the financing and the educational provisions of Act 60 hit home with the voters next year, however, the 1999 legislature may look quite a bit different from this one. Then many good things will be possible.

The Brigham Decision as the Route to Education Reform
February 1997

By now everybody knows, or thinks they know, what the Vermont's five-person Supreme Legislature has decreed in the Brigham (educational funding) case. Without wasting time and space examining the highly dubious line of reasoning and truly astounding legal process used by the Supreme Court, the results can be summarized briefly.

  • There is, under the Vermont Constitution of 1786, a fundamental right to something called "educational opportunities". You won't find it there, but the Court, with its legal and historical superpowers, did.
  • It is the responsibility of the state, not the towns, to ensure that the access of every child to such opportunities is the same as that of every other child, at least to the extent that the law can make it the same.
  • Whatever "educational opportunities" may be, they are measured exactly and precisely by the amount of money spent by taxpayers on public schools. "Money," said the Court, "is clearly not the only variable affecting educational opportunity, but it is one that government can effectively equalize."
  • Since even with the various types of state aid, the amount spent per pupil in local public schools varies widely from town to town, the students in the lower-spending districts are not equally enjoying the fundamental right discovered by the Court.
  • The fact that students in every school enjoy some minimum level of educational opportunities is not an adequate defense of the system, because other students in higher spending districts have greater educational opportunities, and thus unequal enjoyment of a constitutional right.
  • Therefore, the General Assembly must create a new system in which, to use the Court's language, "children who live in property-poor districts and children who live in property-rich districts should be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to similar educational revenues."

What the Court meant on the foregoing points is beyond controversy. Here is the really sticky wicket. According to the Court, "equal opportunity does not necessarily require precisely equal per capita expenditures, nor does it allow a system in which educational opportunity is necessarily a function of district wealth."

Robert Gensburg, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said last week that "if the state is passing out a state benefit, then the equal protection clause requires that the benefit be distributed equally among all the people... What the case says is that every child in Vermont is entitled to the same educational opportunities that the other children in Vermont are receiving in our public school system..."

Since Gensburg argued successfully that educational opportunity is measured by dollars spent, it is clear that he, and the Court, believe that "substantially equal" spending per child is constitutionally required. Gensburg added that if the legislature didn't achieve this by September, he would be back in court about it.

At the same meeting Prof. Peter Teachout of Vermont Law School hopefully opined that "communities that are willing to tax themselves at a higher rate in order to spend more on their schools can still do so under the court's decision." But the result of that thinking is that the voters in property-rich towns might vote to spend more than the voters in property-poor towns, which is precisely what the Court struck down. The state, which bears the constitutional responsibility, cannot allow local voters to thwart the rights of pupils.

What will the Supreme Court accept as fulfillment of its mandate by its junior partner, the General Assembly? Here are some schemes that ought to pass muster on the Court's standard.

1. Muddling Through: The State caps local spending for education, "recaptures" tax revenues from the "gold" towns, distributes the proceeds to "poor" towns until all towns have an equal revenue base per pupil, and then requires all towns to raise and spend the same amount per pupil from that base. This keeps the present system and its bureaucrats and power relationships alive indefinitely, while avoiding anything resembling educational reform.

2.The State-run education system: End local property tax funding for education. The State takes responsibility for paying all costs of education in a giant state-controlled school system. This would presumably require a statewide property tax and a statewide teacher's contract. Local control would be reduced to such site-based management of schools as the state would allow, but local voters would not deal with raising money. The Court, as we know from its opinion, is interested only in "opportunities"; it has no interest in what is bought with the tax dollars so long as the amount spent per pupil is "substantially equal".

3. Ultimate Local Control: End local property tax funding for education. The State levies a statewide property tax or other major revenue producer and hands out equal tuition checks to the parents of every child - say $4000 per elementary pupil, $5000 for junior high, and $7000 for high school. The parents can cash in their tuition checks to any recognized school - public, independent, or religious. Public schools would become de facto charter schools, bidding for pupils; they would no longer be funded by local government revenue.

Are there other schemes the Court would buy? Undoubtedly. But it seems obvious that "local (government) control" in the form of raising local taxes for education will soon be gone for good. If its departure means a complete state takeover of public education, it is likely to be a costly disaster for our taxpayers, communities and children alike.

On the other hand, if the control taken from local school boards is not swallowed up by the state, but is instead converted into the power of choice for parents - as Rutland Mayor Jeff Wennberg has been quick to suggest - then the result of this decision could be an extraordinary leap forward for the children of Vermont.

Why Educational Choice
January 1997

The idea of parental choice in education is on a roll both nationally and in Vermont, and with good reason.

To understand why the demand for choice in education is rising so rapidly around the country, it is first necessary to understand the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education.

Fifty years ago the community public school was a well accepted ideal. Scho
(December 2009)


How can Vermonters get equal or better educational outcomes for their children, with fewer taxpayer dollars?

That intriguing question has rarely if ever been squarely posed. A State Board of Education's policy commission is laboring to produce "transformation" policies, with no attention to what those policies might cost taxpayers.

A legislatively-created committee (a majority of which are teacher union-dependent) is currently trying to find an affordable way to finance the current system of education. It's not unreasonable to suspect that it will recommend offloading current education expenses (notably health insurance) onto some other taxpayer account, plus creating a new mega-organization in the name of (supposed) "greater efficiencies in delivery."

A completely different approach is that of the Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value. This private sector commission, created by the Ethan Allen Institute, consists of 15 former superintendents, principals, school board and Senate education committee members, and PhDs. Its chair is Chris Robbins, who just completed a six year term on the State Board of Education and is also the current Chair of VSAC.

In his foreword to the report, Robbins says "The fundamental premise of this report is that a policy of creating an ever-enlarging 'system', directed from the top down, populated with thousands of teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats, controlling the annual expenditure of $1,450 million taxpayer dollars, jealously protective of the benefits enjoyed by the people employed in the 'system', and dismissive of the abilities and preferences of parents and children, is a policy headed off in a totally wrong direction."

"Such a policy will, ultimately, and despite the best intentions of many persons within that system, shortchange our students, defeat the preferences of many parents, and spend ever escalating amounts of taxpayer dollars for little or no added educational benefit."

"Instead of enlarging and fortifying the "system", we recommend deconstructing the current 'system" and rebuilding it based on the needs and desires of parents and students."

The new report, entitled Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars, includes a detailed economic analysis of today's public education system. That analysis concludes that "it is very clear than Vermonters - taxpayers and parents - are not getting their money's worth from our very high per pupil education spending. It is also clear that this spending trend is unsustainable."

The Commission believes that "the great majority of parents and children have the capacity to identify the kind of education most suitable to their children's needs and preferences, and that public financial support for education should flow not through overgrown and nonproductive bureaucracies, but directly through the consumers to a wide array of educational providers, some public, some private, that attract revenues by offering a product that their customers want."

The Commission recommends giving tuition certificates to students instead of payments to schools, as is now done in 90 Vermont tuition towns. It advocates creation of charter schools, now in operation in forty other states, and more virtual schooling. It supports tax credits for Student Tuition Organizations (to fund scholarships to faith-based schools), and Education Freedom Districts (where voters could create their own education models).

The Commission also recommends that compliance with the Federal special education mandate be made a responsibility of the State Department of Education. It would contract with appropriate providers, including public schools, for free and appropriate services for eligible students, and defend against lawsuits.

A table in the report suggests that if parents chose to send only 20 percent of today's public school children to independent schools and other educational programs costing typically half the per pupil cost of comparable public schools, education spending would decrease by $81 million a year.

A 2008 Friedman Foundation poll revealed that 89% of Vermont voters favored independent, charter, virtual or home schooling over traditional public schools. If parents acted on those preferences, the savings to taxpayers could be as much as three times that amount.
Moving to a competition and choice model, the report says, "will stimulate a vibrant, dynamic educational marketplace that will help our children acquire the skills they need to flourish in the 21st century, and put Vermont on the nation's map as a hotbed of imagination, innovation, and achievement."

Such a shift would, of course, force many of our near-monopoly public schools to reshape their policies and programs, to keep on attracting revenue-paying students. This will stimulate furious opposition from the least imaginative and most security-conscious public school officials, plus the Vermont-NEA teachers union.

That's understandable. But most parents and taxpayers probably believe that they - as well as our schoolchildren - will benefit more from dynamic 21st century competition and choice in education, than paying ever more to keep the 20th century monopoly system alive.