Education Week

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(HOST) Vermont didn’t fare so well in school rankings issued by the national magazine, Education Week. Commentator Allen Gilbert takes a closer look at the rankings.

(GILBERT) Education Week magazine recently ranked Vermont near the bottom nationally in school equity. The ranking shows how little understood our school finance system is – eight years after it was developed.

Ed Week missed the central point that Vermont’s funding formula provides all Vermont towns with equal access to school funds. It’s perfect equity: a penny on the tax rate in one town raises the same amount per pupil as a penny on the tax rate in any other town. No other state in the country achieves this.

How did Ed Week stumble so badly? It appears that the magazine’s researchers left “local control” out of the many factors that they used in their analysis of equity. They neglected Vermonters’ fierce pride in local oversight of their schools.

In its 1997 Brigham decision, our state Supreme Court said that a child’s learning opportunities shouldn’t be determined by the wealth of the town where he or she lives. Under the previous funding formula, some towns were able to offer their children rich learning opportunities with low school taxes. Other towns struggled with high taxes simply to pay for a bare bones education for their kids.

In response to the court’s ruling, the Legislature designed a funding system that provided equal access to school funds while maintaining local control of schools. It was a neat trick. And that’s where Ed Week fell down in its analysis. It neglected to consider that, in Vermont, a town is free to spend more on its school if it likes – perhaps to pay teachers more, to have a state-of-the-art chemistry lab or to field more sports teams. That’s what local control is all about. Local residents control their school’s budget at town meeting. They’ll pay more to add new programs. But they’re assured that adding a chemistry lab will cost the same in their town as it would in any other town. Perfect equity provides an equal draw on school funds for all towns.

While Ed Week magazine’s equity score for Vermont was wrong, I do think its criticism of our standards and accountability system was closer to the mark. We received a C minus in that area. Much of this “slouch” grade was due to a lack of coordination of our social studies curriculum. We’ve developed rigorous statewide standards and tests in math, English and science, but social studies has been abandoned. Educators can’t agree on what our children should be taught in history, civics, geography and sociology. I’m not necessarily a fan of statewide testing in all subjects. But I do know that good tests – based on strong, clear standards – encourage coordinated, effective teaching.

Education Commissioner Richard Cate announced this fall that he would finally fill the job of social studies coordinator at his department. The position has been vacant for a dozen years. That’s a step in the right direction. Teaching our kids to become intelligent, involved, productive citizens has been a core goal of our public education system since it was developed 200 years ago. We can’t lose sight of that.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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