Consternation is mounting over property taxes following the defeat of nearly three dozen school budgets at town meeting this year. Voters have rejected budgets in towns such as Underhill, where the tax rate was set to skyrocket, even as the school budget decreased. But they also rejected budgets in districts such as Rutland City, where increases in the budget and the expected tax rate were modest.
These circumstances have intensified the cry in some circles to do something about Act 60/68, the stateís education funding law, though do exactly what is seldom mentioned. The Legislature can be expected to continue to study the problem and to complain about the complexity of the school funding system, but little real action is likely.
And itís no wonder. If we think back to the passage of Act 60 in 1997, we will recall that it was preceded by years of detailed, extensive work by legislators and other policymakers who had been wrestling with the issue for more than 20 years. Further, passage of the law, or something like it, became necessary because of the Supreme Courtís Brigham decision, which held that the existing system was unconstitutional because it did not provide equal educational opportunity.
Today there has been no extensive study of an alternative that would guarantee fairness and local control. Rather, there has been a call for repeal with a vague suggestion that something ought to be created to replace the existing law.
It is hard for voters to stomach rising taxes even as they take steps to limit spending within their districts. But even apart from the existing system, districts would face the pressures that are driving up costs today, including shrinking enrollment, a declining grand list and rising health care costs. There is no easy solution to the problems created by these pressures.
There is action around the margins of the educational finance issue, such as the idea that school districts should be consolidated so they are governed by super-boards in the central towns. It is argued that consolidation would save costs, thus slowing the upward curve of school spending. But administrative savings achieved through consolidation would be meager, and the galloping bureaucratization of education would accelerate. Meanwhile, local democracy in the stateís many small towns would be eviscerated.
The state will face many tax challenges in the coming years. Two of the large ones are a major new tax for a single-payer health care system, a priority for Gov. Peter Shumlin. Also, the state faces growing pressures to whittle down the unfunded liabilities in its pension systems, which could demand major new expenditures.
Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to become experts in Act 60/68 in order to withstand ill-conceived attacks that would erode the systemís fairness. It is complicated, but it is not as complicated as its foes say. The system before Act 60 was a disaster for education in Vermont, and much of Vermontís recent success in education is owing to the new educational opportunities created for places such as Barre, Rutland and Springfield because at long last they have had the resources to support their schools.
We must remember that students in Barre and Rutland have as much right to a good education as students in Stowe or Manchester. Before Act 60 that right did not translate into equality of opportunity. Today because of our present system a dollar raised in Manchester provides just as much per student as a dollar raised in Barre. It is a national scandal that a similar degree of equity is rare in the nation; it is to be cherished in Vermont.
The budget defeats occurring this year prove the point that local control is still an important check on education spending. Contrary to the assertions by Shumlin and others that voters are insulated from the tax effects of higher budgets, voters showed in numerous towns that they were willing to say no when they thought they needed to bring taxes under control. That power doesnít immunize them from the economic and demographic pressures affecting the education system and its costs, but it showed that voters are not inert.
The tax challenges of the coming years require that the Legislature stand firm for what is good about the school funding system. If they cannot become articulate defenders of the fairness inherent in the system, while acknowledging the cost pressures and making needed adjustments, then the system will become more vulnerable to changes that erode fairness and diminish educational opportunity.