A legislative task force is proposing a change the funding mechanism for English language learning students in Vermont K-12 schools.
The proposal was introduced last Friday at a meeting of the “Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report,” a joint legislative body that has been given the job of proposing a more equitable way to distribute money to school districts across the state.
Under the proposal, funding would be sent directly to school districts with English language learning students in the form of grants, or “categorical aid.”
Currently in Vermont, school budgets are developed at the local level by school boards and approved by voters. Funding, however, comes from the state education fund, which is funded in part by property taxes.
Those local tax rates are determined by spending per equalized pupil. A higher equalized per-pupil count means lower tax rates for a district.
To calculate per-pupil spending, the state applies a weighted formula that reflects the resources a district needs to educate students based on certain characteristics, including students living in rural areas, students from low-income backgrounds, students with different learning needs and students for whom English is not their primary language.
Yet a 2019 report commissioned by the Legislature found the existing formula to be “outdated,” with weights having “weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs for educating students with disparate needs or operating schools in different contexts.”
The proposal would provide a $25,000 base grant to districts with at least one student, with $5,000 per each additional student. In total, the program is projected to cost $10.7 million.
Task force co-chair Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, said the proposal is structured in a way that will ensure districts have adequate funding to stand up English language programs regardless of how many students they have.
“It’s much more sensitive to the scale of English language programs in the district than the weights are because we are able to set up a minimum threshold,” she said.
Kornheiser said English language learning was isolated because the costs and requirements associated with such programs are known, whereas interventions needed to educate students living in rural areas or in poverty are less clear.
“It’s a much more specific educational intervention,” she said.
She said the goal of the proposal is to ensure that all English language learning students have access to adequate resources everywhere in the state, “regardless of a district’s tax capacity or a community’s ability to pay.”
But Mark Schauber, executive director of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, which represents more than 20 underweighted school districts, argued that the task force’s proposal will widen the disparity gap, not close it.
“We don’t believe that there’s any way to ensure that categorical aid is going to be consistent,” he said.
Schauber pointed to the state’s small schools grant program, which saw its eligibility requirements changed by the State Board of Education in the wake of Act 46 school consolidation process.
He added that relying on grants will raise taxes because it’s bringing more money into the system.
“It is our strong belief that there is plenty of money in the Education Fund as it is, it’s just not being allocated in a fair manner,” he said.
Kornheiser noted that categorical aid, as being proposed by the task force, would come from the Education Fund — not the General Fund, like other grant programs — and wouldn’t be at risk of being changed based on political decisions.
“We raise funds to match the need, we don’t determine the need based on available funds,” she said. “So something that is set up in statute as a funding formula isn’t any more possible or more likely to change year by year than the way the weights are set up.”
Kornheiser explained that the formula used in the English language categorical aid proposal was informed by the study and takes into consideration the increased costs for districts.
“We’re just saying we want to deliver that directly to districts rather than through a more complicated weighted tax formula,” she said.
Schauber, on the other hand, argued that creating a categorical aid program would only add complexity to an already complex funding system.
He is hoping the task force will apply the proposal to the weighting models presented in the study in order to provide a more accurate comparison.
“We haven’t seen the math,” he said. “I want everyone to have a base level of information and comparisons to make, so that we and the task force can truly evaluate what systems going to be best for our students.”
Kornheiser said she expected to have numbers on the application of the new weights next week.
Stephanie Yu, a policy analyst at the Montpelier-based Public Assets Institute, said categorical aid and pupil weighting are both useful tools to even out education costs from district to district across the state.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or,” she said.
Yu said Public Assets has raised concerns about the size of the proposed weights and has been urging the task force to explore categorical aid as another option.
“Higher per pupil spending districts are going to benefit more from a higher weight,” she said. “So it kind of creates this distortion in the system.”
Yu acknowledged criticisms of categorical aid, such as those around small schools grants, but suggested that those changes have been the result of policy debates and are not inherent to categorical aid as a funding mechanism.
Ted Plemenos, director of finance at Rutland City Public Schools, acknowledged that categorical aid could work “if done properly.” However, he raised concerns that such a strategy could create “unintended consequences,” by changing some parts of the study’s recommendations but not others “in spite of the data being analyzed, modeled and estimated holistically.”
Plemenos said that such “cherry picking” creates uncertainty.
“It begs the question … whether another analysis is appropriate in order to ensure that you’re still getting the outcomes that study was intended to provide,” he said.
He said the Rutland City school district, which is a member of the coalition, has “full confidence in the integrity, comprehensiveness and thoroughness” of 2019 the study, adding that he is in favor of implementing the weights as recommended and supplementing funding afterward as needed.
“I believe strongly that the empirical work that the study team did provides the best basis that there is, to date, for implementing recommendations,” he said.