The Future of Education: A cost review

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(Host) For decades Vermont’s governors and legislatures have tried to solve the problems of providing and paying for a good education.

But the cost of education and how to pay for it continues to trouble Vermonters.

This week, Vermont Public Radio has brought together many different perspectives on the topic in a two-part symposium on The Future of Education.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea reviews some of the perspectives on the cost of education from the first session in Manchester this week.

(McCrea) A look at what’s driving up the cost of education begins with some statistics. Over the past 10 years, student enrollment has dropped 9% but staffing has gone up 22%.

Economist Nicholas Rockler was commissioned to study Vermont’s changing demographics. He says what seems like an incongruity isn’t as simple as it sounds.

(Rockler) “The relationship between instructional personnel and enrollments – they’re not directly tied one-to-one. If you have a classroom with 13 kids and the next year a couple of them disappear, you still have to have a teacher there.”

(McCrea) Discussion about declining enrollment leads to the issue of consolidation. Rockler says that while consolidating schools can be difficult, consolidating districts might be worth consideration.

(Rockler) “And I don’t think it’s just for general administrative purposes. There are other expenditure categories in which centralized purchasing would generate some economies of scale. Curriculum development, textbook acquisition, contracts for maintenance of physical facilities, physical plant – those kind of things can be done and bid more effectively with a larger district.”

(McCrea) But the director of the Rural Education Trust takes a different view. Marty Strange says his research shows that when you centralize beaurocracies, they don’t shrink they grow.

(Strange) “And when you look at how states are spending their money .When you see lot of school consolidation, and especially a lot of district consolidation what you get is more money spent on transportation and more money spent on bureaucracy. West Virginia is a classic case in point. West Virginia closed 325 schools in the period of ten years. During that period West Virginia increased the number of administrators by 13%.”

(McCrea) There is consensus on another cost-driver in education: the fact that schools are being asked to do more. Michael Dick is former president of the Rutland school board. He describes the increased role of schools in dealing with poverty.

(Dick) “We are now required to provide programs and services starting with breakfast. We teach them. We provide lunch we have to maintain after-school programs. Because many of these kids have two parents that are working. Or a single parent that is working. They’re not home for these kids and we’re responsible from six to six. That’s expensive.”

(McCrea) Special Education is another cost driver. Karin Edwards, with the Department of Education, says some students are coming to school with more intensive needs, which require more involved services.

(Edwards) “I think that schools are being asked to do things that people in schools weren’t asked to do 20 years ago because of the intensity of the needs of some of the students.”

(McCrea) And then there are personnel costs. Paying for staff represents about two-thirds of any school budget. Economist Nicholas Rockler has studied this issue. In looking at the mix of salaries and benefits, he says it appears that benefits are growing at almost twice the rate of inflation primarily because of the rise in health care costs.

In response to this trend, Education Commissioner Richard Cate says he think s it would be helpful if the state took over responsibility for health care expenses.

(Cate) “To pull health insurance out of the local contracts and put it at the state level the way we have retirement at the state level and be uniform in that and actually have that broader base. So I think that’s worth pursuing. It’s challenging but somehow retirement ended up there so why not health insurance?”

(McCrea) Cate says he hopes lawmakers will seriously consider a bill that would have the state provide health care benefits to all Vermont teachers in the state.

It’s one proposal he believes would help to take pressure off of local school budgets.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea

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