« Previous  
 Next »

School funding

02/26/07 12:00AM
 MP3   Download MP3 

(HOST) Our week-long discussion of the future of education in Vermont continues this morning with commentator Chris Graff. Today's debate over the financing of education in Vermont appears to be the continuation of one that has been ongoing for decades. But Graff says there is a big difference.

(GRAFF) Twenty years ago Gov. Madeleine Kunin devoted her entire state of the state address to a single subject: The financing of education. She put it bluntly: "Today in Vermont the quality of education a child receives depends on where he or she resides." Her comments echoed a message that governors had been making for more than a century, from Gov. John Page in 1868 who said "the burdens of taxation do not bear equally on all classes of property" to Gov. Deane Davis, who said in 1971 that Vermonters most of all wanted their children to have the opportunity for a good education "regardless of whether (they) live in a rich or poor family and regardless of whether (they) live in a rich or poor town."

With the focus this year again on the financing of public schools, many people surely think this is merely the continuation of that century-old debate.

It is not.

What upset Govs. Kunin and Davis was a huge inequity. Some communities - like Essex with IBM or Killington with its ski resort - could almost effortlessly raise money for schools, while other communities, like a Hardwick or Craftsbury, had to impose a much higher tax rate on its residents to generate even a fraction as much.

Ten years ago, on Feb. 5, 1997, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled such a system unconstitutional, saying, "The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child's residence."

That decision required the Legislature to devise a system by which the burden of financing schools would be the same from community to community. To do away with the inequity. To ensure equal educational opportunity for all.

They did.

The system they devised is complex in a Rube Goldberg type fashion - It is truly too complex. When Act 60 was formulated a decade ago not one person thought it was the best system. It was simply the proposal that could muster majority support in the Legislature and avoid a gubernatorial veto.

What Act 60 did, though, was bring to an end a system that split Vermont communities into the haves and have-nots.

That was a radical change for Vermont, but it did not end the debate over school financing. That's because the bottom line of financing education is still huge. Raising a billion dollars is no easy feat in a small state like Vermont - no matter how you do it.

This year's debate, though, finds all communities in the same boat - all crying out in equal pain. And that's the result of the Supreme Court decision ten years ago.

Chris Graff is a former journalist and author of "Dateline Vermont", a history of Vermont politics over the past forty years. He lives in Montpelier.

comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter