VISA update: Weighting task force releases draft recommendations

This is the Dec. 11, 2021, update from the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

Several recommendations for reform of the weighting process and of other elements of Vermont’s school finance system are in a recently released Task Force report to the General Assembly. Weighting is important because it determines equalized pupil counts by which Education Fund allocations to schools are determined. The report also addresses tuitioning by school districts that do not operate some or all school grades and support for prekindergarten services.

The weighting recommendations call for much increased support for students living in poverty and also would boost support for students residing in low population density regions of the state. The report recommends removing English language learner support from the weighting system, replacing it with a categorical grant.

Additionally the report recommends elimination of small school grants, establishing an Education Tax Advisory Committee “to oversee scheduled, periodic updates to pupil weights or cost equity pay-ments…”, and constructing a “comprehensive evaluation component, perhaps led by the State Auditor’s office.”

Though the Task Force chose not to recommend any changes to the current system for tuitioning students from non-operating districts attending both independent and public schools, it did recommend the “AOE and SBE jointly establish a standard method for Vermont public schools to set tuition.” Currently no standard exists. The Task Force report noted public school announced “rates can vary widely across the state.”

Testifying during a December 10 Task Force hearing, Executive Director Mill Moore said VISA “is pleased the draft report acknowledges deficiencies in the way rates are set for public support of tuition to independent schools.”

The Task Force also recommended modifying “the pupil weight or an alternative funding mechanism for pre-kindergarten students following the completion of the Act 45 child care financing study in 2023.”

The report also offers an alternative method for distributing education resources — something the Task Force termed a “cost-equity” approach. Noting that changing pupil weights “changes the tax capacity, not the spending of a school district,” the report said “using the weights to determine the equivalent dollar amount necessary to meet student needs equitably would avoid some … distortions.”

A lengthy and perhaps contentious process is ahead for these recommendations. The Task Force will hear reactions and then after perhaps making revisions will deliver its report to the General Assembly. Though the report will be taken seriously when delivered, anything is possible after that. Many interests are in play.