In 1997, in Brigham v. State, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that the Vermont constitution requires the provision of substantially equal educational opportunity to all students. The court declared the state’s education funding system unconstitutional because it resulted in wide disparities in per-pupil expenditures.
Within months of this decision, the legislature created a new educational funding system that acknowledged circumstances that impede educational outcomes. Educational costs to address and counter effect these factors were, in good faith, projected. Monetary projections were “weighed” and assigned a percentage of funds reflective of an addition to the base “per pupil” cost—a funding effort that’s now referred to as “pupil weights.”
Despite this effort, legislators noted student performance disparities and, in 2018, commissioned a study. The study, which resulted in the “Pupil Weighting Factors Report” was conducted by the University of Vermont and Rutgers University and examined how Vermont accounts for the costs of educating different learners, such as English language learners, children experiencing poverty and children living in rural areas. Completed in 2019, its conclusions were stark and precise. The data revealed how our financially stable white students thrive in our schools disproportionately well compared to students living in poverty and or living in rural areas, but above all, students who are not white. Though the spirit behind Brigham is worthy of bragging rights, we need to acknowledge the weights were introduced with no empirical evidence from a homogeneous state and consequent state of mind, unprepared to fathom educating students of the 21st century.
This summer and fall, a task force has been meeting to address the documented injustice of our current education funding formula. Though this might sound promising, the formation of a task force is on the brink of several disappointing “political compromises,” negating an opportunity to right an equity wrong. The UVM/Rutgers report provided recommendations on how to exactly correct this flaw with a revised, equitable “weighting” formula, but last session, the legislature chose not to update the pupil weights. Their session ended with establishing a task force to craft legislative recommendations on the pupil weights for the next sessions’ consideration.
The task force itself is called “the Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report.” Yet the task force has gone to great lengths to circumvent their actual task of implementing the recommended weights. This includes a proposal to eliminate English language learners from the pupil weighting system by funding their education with targeted grants (known as “categorical aid”). Meanwhile, districts who’ve struggled under the current system are emphatically telling the task force, in unison, that categorical aid will not fix the problem.
The problem is baked into the current formula itself, and categorical aid is a bandage at best. Districts need to be able to make long-term plans, which is impossible with categorical aid as it changes from year to year based on the political whim of the legislature.
The task force is instead listening to the districts who have grown accustomed to being overfunded and can’t wrap their heads around cutting programs or asking their constituents to pass a school budget that makes up for what the weighting formula doesn’t provide—exactly what struggling districts have had to do for 20 years but of which would pale in comparison as far as cuts and budget asks.
I serve on Burlington’s school board representing the Old North End. The most densely populated neighborhood in Vermont’s most populated city, which is also known for its economic and racial diversity, per capita in New England. What this actually looks like can be gleaned within minutes while hanging out on my porch, seeing people representing all “demographics” coming and going. What this actually feels like can be summarized as inviting and inspiring. It’s hard to put into words the sense of acceptance this community exudes. I’m trying to paint a picture for you knowing that Vermont is the second whitest state—only a mere .2 percent behind Maine. The residential makeup of my neighborhood is actually the norm in our country but the Old North End is an extreme exception compared to what most neighborhoods look and feel like in Vermont. Yet Vermonters have embraced a narrative of having a progressive mindset, living in a forward thinking state unaware how narrow their view is. The majority of Vermonters are unable to see the prevalence of classism and racism. Or maybe they choose to look away. But there’s no denying Vermont is not a progressive, nor forward thinking place to live for people of color. This is why I find it alarming, but not necessarily surprising, that on the table is a proposal to fund a demographic mostly composed of black and brown children with unpredictable grants as a direct result of appeasing districts who’ve grown accustomed to privilege.
When I first read the UVM/Rutgers study I felt such a sense of affirmation. Finally, data that pertained to the “achievement gap” but more so a real identifier of a system that’s supporting the polarization of the “have and the have nots.” Because it’s in that space between the have and the have nots where bias is born and concepts of prejudice and racism are learned. Next time you ask your kid, “What did you learn in school today?” consider gleaning their answers for stereotypes, ranging from poverty shaming to overtly racial. In this process, I’ve noticed an effort to avoid calling the current funding formula an example of systemic racism. I know this has been a purposeful way to keep the lines of communication open but I can’t hold my tongue anymore. The addition of separating English language learners from the educational funding system is treating them differently and, in itself, should be scrutinized as a form of educational segregation—Insult to injury, cushioning the tax implications for well-off constituents.
In legislative hands is an opportunity to make a system change that will provide all of our children with a more equitable experience that will surely influence a trajectory in cultivating the future mindset of Vermont. My point, Vermont needs to put their money where their mouth is. Where they put that money will speak volumes.
Jean Waltz is a District Central School Board Commissioner in Burlington.