This Q&A-style commentary is by Meg Hansen (MBBS, MA). She ran for state-level public office in 2020.
Q: What is your perspective on the pupil weighting factors report, released in December 2019, which concluded that small and rural school districts face significant funding inequities under the current statewide education funding system? If you think action should be pursued, what will you do to push action?
A: The Pupil Weighting Factors report shows that Act 60/68 has failed to achieve funding equity across the state’s school districts because it does not consider factors such as student poverty, student disability levels, and limited English proficiency by non-native speakers. The study recommends that Vermont’s education funding formula be modified to provide more financial aid to certain school districts. In practical terms, it would translate to increased property taxes for some by a little and for others by a lot. I cannot imagine how a proposal to raise taxes for any reason, however legitimate, would gain traction from Vermonters.
Some commentators have used this report to demonize higher-income school districts for allegedly “over-accessing state education dollars for decades.” I do not find it constructive to pit Vermont schools against one another.
The premise of the report is that increased spending leads to better learning outcomes. I have not seen any evidence to prove this relationship. On the contrary, a 2018 study, “Fixing the Bias in Current State K–12 Education Rankings,” found that there is “no significant relationship between spending and student performance, either in magnitude or statistical significance.” If more spending does not improve academic performance, then we need to focus on actionable steps that enable each Vermont student to improve learning results in math, reading and science. Nothing worthwhile is achieved by simply throwing money at it.
Q: A recent report delivered to the Agency of Education by the Continuity of Learning Task Force suggests that local control of education policy has led to a high degree of variability between districts, causing significant inequities. What do you see as the state’s role in ensuring equitability across school districts? Do you think major changes to the way education is governed in the state are necessary to ensure equitability?
A: This report’s conclusion contradicts that of the Pupil Weighting Factors report. The latter shows that students across Vermont’s school districts face different challenges due to poverty, disability, language skills, and mental health needs. Therefore, educational outcomes will necessarily vary and be inequitable. Then, how can we attribute these “significant inequities” to local teaching decisions? I believe that good education policy strikes the right balance between local autonomy and state-level leadership.
The Task Force’s Chair writes explicitly about reinventing K-12 education, especially by using technology. He alleges that high school education in Vermont is “teacher centered” and “slow to embrace change,” but mentions no solutions that would improve actual learning results. We should not confuse the ability to use twenty-first century technology with acquiring knowledge. For example, using a smartphone or laptop with ease does not mean that one possesses the knowledge of history, civics, geography, math or literature that is expected of a ninth grader.
Our students are Vermont’s future. We owe it to them to maximize their learning outcomes in math, reading, and science subjects. Finally, the report betrays a bias toward the knowledge economy. A four-year liberal arts college education should not be the only path offered. We should invest in secondary and post-secondary level programs that train our students in the skilled trades, entrepreneurship, and for careers in the rural economy (e.g. forestry, farming).