Bad data underpins talk of consolidation
Consolidation is the one idea to contain education costs that is gaining serious ground in Montpelier.
Bills in the Legislature, reports out of the Agency of Education and the stated goals of the state Board of Education all support consolidation as the key to reducing education spending in Vermont. In fact, they should be addressing the underlying problems with the implementation of Act 68.
Consolidation looks like a clear winner on the surface, but looks can be deceiving and in this case they are.
The reason consolidation looks so appealing is because we have come to view everything through the lens of Act 68, which measures all schools by what is called education spending per equalized pupil.
Through that lens, large schools look like they spend significantly less per student than small schools. They look like they spend more along the lines of what is spent in neighboring states, as if economies of scale make a difference for us today.
In fact, many large school districts are spending just as much or more than many much smaller schools do. The Act 68 funding system totally clouds this fact.
Our highly complex formula hides the facts in the following way: Education spending reflects actual expenditures, minus a wide variety of revenue offsets.
These offsets include state and federal funds for special education, English as a second language, and free and reduced lunch populations. They include fund balances and public and private grants to support particular initiatives, investments or populations.
Equalized pupils are also not equivalent to actual student counts. In the equalized pupil formula, different types of students are weighted differently, and many of the heavier weightings are based upon the same factors that drive qualification for revenue offsets: special education, ESL, and free and reduced lunch needs.
The impact of using these constructs to evaluate how expensive or efficient a school district seems is shown in the accompanying chart, based upon fiscal year 2014 data.
When you consider total expenditures per student as opposed to the Act 68 constructs, you can see that some of our largest school districts are far from more cost-effective in delivering education.
It is only owing to Act 68 constructs that these larger districts appear significantly more cost-effective (and are held responsible for less of the education funding burden). These measures undermine our ability to understand actual spending, actual cost drivers and the impact of our relative investments. We need to look at the right data to get a handle on spending.
With this basic look at the raw data, does consolidation really look like the best cost-containment strategy for us today? Further, does it seem Act 68 is helping us fairly allocate resources and tax burden? Does it seem the right foundation to build education policy around, despite how it obscures spending and accountability?
While it is highly unlikely that there are no opportunities to reduce costs and improve opportunities and outcomes through carefully targeted consolidation, it is wholesale, forced consolidation that is being proposed in our Legislature.
The agenda to force statewide consolidation is not based upon a clear understanding of spending and outcomes. The aggressive consolidation agenda is driven by continued use of Act 68 funding constructs, which cloak real spending and real costs drivers and promote false hope as to the savings consolidation will deliver.
So while our Legislature and governor fail to address the root problems in the implementation of Act 68, we find ourselves at the threshold of shattering our statewide education governance structures and the school and central office leadership, which certainly have played a role in helping us routinely rank near the very top in education outcomes in the United States. How is it wise to implement such sweeping centralization of control on false premises and an unstable, untended foundation?
Sweeping consolidation is not the solution. To dismantle the education system that has drawn many families to our state would be hugely disruptive and risk further loss of students and taxpayers.
Community-based schools should be and can be sustainable in Vermont ó if we face up to the real underlying problems driving rising costs in our education system. The boldness and goals of Act 68 are commendable. However, we need to stop ignoring its flaws. We need to eliminate its tragedy of the commons, which drives up budgets, put the brakes on unfunded mandates from Montpelier, implement incentives for cost containment, and promote and safeguard best practices in cost-effective and high-impact education delivery.
It is time for education funding reform from our Legislature and governor and instructive leadership from the Agency of Education. They have been entrusted with our property taxes to fairly, sustainably and optimally fund education across our state. They need to address what only they can fix ó Act 68.
After all, if they canít or wonít tackle the problems of our statewide education system, how can we possibly entrust them with our health care?
Heidi Spear is chairwoman of the Fayston School Board.