For over 20 years, the majority of school districts in Vermont have been denied their fair share of education funds, and their constitutional right to equitable educational opportunity. That’s because the formula the state uses to distribute education funds does not accurately calculate the costs of educating low-income, rural, English language learners and small school students. UVM and Rutgers University published a nationally acclaimed report in 2019 that identified this problem and made specific, empirically derived recommendations to fix it. It’s been nearly two years since the legislature received this report that they themselves commissioned, yet here we are, still trying to convince the legislature to follow the science and data and adopt these recommendations.
As a parent, Board member in the Marlboro School district, and member of The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, I firmly believe the only real resolution to the equity in school funding issue is implementation of the proper weights in the formula as recommended by UVM and Rutgers. The inequity that has existed within rural, small schools, impoverished and English language learning communities these last 25 years is a stain on Vermont’s educational reputation. Unfortunately, I hear repeated discussion of fixing the issue by adding more money into the education fund and creating categorical aid, targeted at certain populations for certain purposes. To me that is a grave error in the making – Vermont is fundraising just fine – the problem is about distributing the funds we have raised and making that distribution equitable to ensure the cost of educating children is shared and that the tax rate is as close to even as possible throughout Vermont.
Equity is about fairness and impartiality. Fairness is easy to understand: Neighboring districts shouldn’t have more educational resources than any other and vice versa. That’s fair. We all pay our fair share and aim to support our schools appropriately. The trouble with trying to fix this issue by using categorical aid is the impartiality factor. Categorical aid is NOT impartial. Categorical aid defines and classifies people – that is not a healthy nor impartial way to ensure fairness. Additionally, categorical aid is just that - a band aid. The only true equity would be something impartial. And the question there is: do we know what is impartial? Yes, we do. Numbers are impartial. Formulas are dispassionate. A number does its job and a formula ensures all distributions go where intended. The use of categorical aid is dangerous for resolving this problem because it sees differing personalities enter the conversation each legislative session and potentially tweak and modify language.
One such example of these modifications can be seen when the small schools grant definition began to change under the Act 46 process to allow only 12 schools to receive aid from the previous 100. Who was changing that definition of a small school? How? Why? For this reason you can see that it is easy for a legislator or state board official to change the definition of a Vermont region but it is less so with the term poverty, rurality, or non-native speaker. These are established terms and the numbers should speak for themselves now and into the future as populations shift and change. Marlboro today will not be Marlboro in 25 years. The same can be said for any other district in Vermont.
Therefore, let the numbers do the work of being impartial. Categorical aid can be weakened over time as it has for other programs, and we will be right back here having the same conversation. While I trust our current legislators to make the right decision on categorical aid, I would urge you to start thinking about the legislators who will succeed you. Will they have the same conscience? The same understanding? The same classifications? Please contact your legislators and urge them to reject categorical aid as a resolution. It’s not a permanent fix.
Douglas Korb, of Marlboro, Vt., is a Marlboro School Board member and a member of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity.