• Rising school costs
    February 02,2014
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    Legislators last week heard about the upward pressure on the stateís education tax, as well as some familiar ideas about how to relieve the pressure. At a time when the number of students is dropping, and spending continues to rise, the discussion is a frustrating and confusing exercise.

    A higher state tax rate is owing to a number of factors, only one of which is the increase in local school budgets. For example, the statewide grand list has fallen, which means there is less property to tax, pushing the tax rate higher. Another cause for the higher tax is escalating costs that are beyond the control of local school districts, such as the rising cost of special education. It is a grim reality that the stateís schools are burdened with problems such as the growing prevalence of autism and of emotional trauma caused by poverty, addiction and family dysfunction. Schools, and taxpayers, canít duck these problems.

    A problem unique to this year is the absence of the surplus that had cushioned the demands of the Education Fund last year. That surplus of $19 million has to be made up this year. Also, the failure to maintain the transfer of money from the General Fund to the Education Fund at the established levels means that more of the stateís education spending has to be covered by the property tax.

    All of these factors, and more, have combined to force the Legislature to contemplate an increase of the base state education tax rate from 94 cents to $1.01 per $100 of assessed valuation. Moreover, none of these demands on the state Education Fund is ameliorated by the fact that the number of students is declining statewide.

    Adjusting school budgets to declining enrollment is not a mathematically precise exercise. If an elementary school has 15 students per class spread over seven grades, that would mean enrollment of 105. A 20 percent drop would be significant, but the result could well be seven grades with 12 students each. In that case how does the school save significant money? It canít lay off the first-grade teacher because she has three fewer students. Sometimes layoffs are necessary; multi-grade classes are not uncommon in small schools. But it is simplistic to suggest that the solution to declining enrollment is an adjustment of student-teacher ratios.

    Another commonly touted solution is to combine administrative districts. Because of its geography and history the state has many small schools and numerous supervisory unions to help administer them. Consolidating them is seen as a path toward greater efficiency. But itís hard to see what would be gained by creating a large central bureaucracy handling the business of multiple districts. There would be the same number of teachers serving the same number of students. And the cost of supervisory administration remains a tiny fraction of school costs in any event.

    Another supposed reason for escalating school costs is that voters, protected by the income-sensitivity provisions of the state system, have no incentive to impose restraint. Except that argument is based on the false assumption that votersí tax rate does not rise when the budgets they approve increase. Itís true that there is no direct correlation between the vote of a town at town meeting and its tax rate ó partly because all towns are part of a statewide grand list. Thus, when Vermont Yankee goes off the tax rolls, it will hurt all taxpayers, not just the taxpayers of Vernon. But when a town adds to its budget above the state base, taxpayers in that town, and around the state, see their taxes go up.

    Calls to reduce the effect of income-sensitivity amount to a call to create an extra burden on middle-class taxpayers in order to force them to restrain school spending. In other words, make taxes burdensome so taxpayers will take steps to prevent taxes from becoming burdensome. It is contradictory.

    Another motive for creating extra burdens for middle-class residential taxpayers is to ease the burden of wealthier taxpayers, business property owners and second home owners. Little evidence has been shown justifying that shift.

    An area where policymakers have an influence is in the mandates they heap on local school districts. Thus, last week a new initiative was announced requiring that each student have an individualized education plan, a requirement that could morph into an enormous bureaucratic headache for teachers.

    It is the kind of initiative that comes with good intentions; individual attention for students is necessary, which good teachers already know. But state requirements are part of what is making local schools increasingly costly for taxpayers. Encouraging good teaching should not require bureaucratic mandates that make good teaching less achievable.
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