Five years of Brigham and Act 60

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert is looking forward to attending an event next Friday, September 13 in Randolph, for a look at school funding policy five years after Brigham.

(Brigham) Next Friday, several hundred people are expected to gather at Vermont Law School for a special conference on “Five Years of the Brigham Decision and Act 60: What’s Happened, What’s Ahead?” I’ve been involved in the planning of the conference. I’m hopeful that the event will provide participants with a thoughtful analysis of the impact of the Brigham decision, and on how successful Vermont has been in carrying out the mandate of education equity.

What have we learned about school funding in the past five years? For me, the most important lesson has been recognizing the huge gap that can exist between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right. No one – not even Act 60’s strongest critics – has ever suggested that Vermont schoolchildren should not be treated equally. Yet putting the principle of equal education opportunity into practice has been very difficult.

The details of an equitable school finance system have been particularly painful to work out. Districts that did well under previous aid formulas but not so well under Act 60 have been unhappy. Representatives of these districts say that while schoolchildren may be treated equitably, taxpayers are not.

The Brigham case could have addressed their concerns. The Supreme Court decided the education equity claim of the case, but it declined to rule on the second claim in the case – taxpayer equity. We’ve been left to address this issue on our own, and it’s been tough.

The solution we need to find is a reliable, accepted way of measuring wealth. The system that we’ve patched together with rebates and prebates is perhaps the fairest property tax system in the country, but it still may not meet our state constitution’s “proportional burden” test of tax fairness. Some people maintain that the current system overvalues their wealth.

Here are a few other things that we’ve learned. First, the Act 60 funding mechanism is sustainable, despite predictions as late as last year that it would fail. Ironically, the funding mechanism works so well that legislators and the governor just raided the Education Fund to bail out the state budget.

Second, some communities have been quicker than others to pick up the school improvement tools that Act 60 offers. Dedicated school boards, committed school staff, and active community members are essential to making schools work better for kids.

Third, the Vermont real estate market hasn’t crashed, as Act 60 critics said it would.

Fourth, by fully funding the current use program and creating a state grand list, Act 60 has helped land conservation efforts. It’s also helped cities and towns such as Montpelier that have lots of tax-exempt properties. Municipalities are no longer punished for hosting public buildings and offices.

And finally, because of Act 60, Vermont is further ahead than any other state in providing equal education opportunities to schoolchildren. We’ve recognized that we have a collective responsibility for all children in all of our towns. Of that, we should be proud.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.

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