Kelley: Poor, rural students are being cheated

by David Kelley

In my lifetime time we have fought more than our share of senseless wars. The so-called “war on poverty” has been one of them. Its failures are too replete to recount in a short op ed, but surely schools are the front line of that war, and here in Vermont our educational funding formula continues to be one of our biggest failures. 

The average teacher’s salary at Hazen Union is $56,652. At South Burlington, the average teacher’s salary is $80,294. In Hardwick, Hazen’s biggest town, 17.6 % of the families live below the poverty line. In South Burlington 6.63% of the families live below the poverty line. Approximately one out of five students at Hazen requires special ed services. Approximately one out of ten students at South Burlington requires special ed services. Hazen spends $23,527 per special needs student. South Burlington spends $32,317.

As the former chair of the Hazen Union School Board and a volunteer debate coach for many years at both Hazen Union and South Burlington I am familiar with both schools, and both are great in different ways. I have met great students and great teachers at both schools. But legislators need to appreciate the differences between these schools if the promise of Brigham, that all Vermont students are “entitled to substantionally equal educational opportunity”, is ever going to be anything more than an empty promise.

The data points to differences that  have profound classroom consequences. At Hazen the differences are manifested in greater classroom management challenges, reduced learning opportunities and increased teacher burnout. One of Vermont’s most respected superintendents, a man who has devoted his career to some of Vermont’s most impoverished school districts, told me recently, “There are times when the needs are so great they can create a deficit mentality and lower expectations. It takes extraordinary principals, staff and teachers to transcend the weight of these needs, to sustain the responsibility to set high expectations and to advance all learners.” A budget crisis at some schools means cutting robotics programs. At Hazen and other schools it means cutting a behavioral specialist, home school coordinators or school based clinicians.

In the Northeast Kingdom levels of poverty are more shameful than ever. There is little hope of breaking a cycle of generational poverty without recognizing that substandard housing, substance abuse and unemployment have profound impacts on the classroom.  We aren’t going to fix our housing problems or our substance abuse problems this year or this decade, but we can fix our education funding formula.

The funding formula needs to be weighted in a way that accounts for poverty and special needs. The formula needs genuine weighting–not categorical aid. As just one example, the way small schools grants are now distributed makes a mockery of categorical aid.  They are not trusted by school boards or communities. Act 173, likewise, cannot be implemented except in conjunction with meaningful weighting, and even then it’s ramifications need to be carefully monitored and adjusted. A block grant based on census is inadequate to meet the needs of districts with high percentages of both poverty and special ed needs. 

There is irrefutable evidence that today’s educational funding formula is violating the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution. But providing equal educational opportunity to all Vermont students is not just a legal imperative. It is a moral and economic imperative as well. If there is any hope for success in the war on poverty the frontline will always be the classroom. 

The author is the former Chair of the Hazen School Board

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4 replies »

  1. So are we to automatically assume that teachers in rural areas are being underpaid ? Maybe teachers in more urban areas are being over paid ? How about the NEA ? What role do they play ? Should they be shooting for that all important “equity” in their teacher’s salaries, as well as performance ?

  2. Yes, so-called fund weighting must be adjusted. But more imortantly, that funding must be directed by parents to the education programs they believe best meet the needs of their children. And this is not an imperative aimed only at improving student outcomes. It will improve parental outcomes.

    “Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation, the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.”

    “Field studies have further shown that when teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge.”

    “The more students were externally regulated the less they showed interest, value, and effort toward achievement and the more they tended to disown responsibility for negative outcomes, blaming others such as the teacher.”

    “Recent research has indicated that “self-determined students were more likely to have achieved more positive adult outcomes including being employed at a higher rate and earning more per hour than peers who did not possess these skills”(Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997).”

    If we want to break the poverty cycle, let parents and their children break it for themselves. If we’ve learned anything over the last 50 years, just throwing money into the public education monopoly, regardless of ‘weighting’ methodology, does not work. Establish an education free market, stand back, and watch the miracle of free market economics do its thing.

    School Choice!

  3. We Vermont taxpayers were told twice that this “inequity” would be addressed, by Act 60 and then with Act 68. Some economic inequities are built in to geography and the cost of housing. The biggest cost driver in public education is paying personnel. Housing prices are higher in Chittenden County, so the salaries must be higher in order to attract applicants. We base our outcomes on test scores. Maybe the kids going to the schools with fewer frills learn better self-sufficiency skills, but of course that leads to less dependency on government and according to the marxists that run Vermont these days, self sufficiency is a tragedy.
    There are some “inequities” that are hard to explain, understand or justify. It is very much more expensive to live in Brooklyn NY than in Swanton VT, yet any sane person would choose Swanton as having a superior quality of life and lower crime rate.
    The point was made that maybe we are just spending TOO MUCH in the more urban districts, where personnel inflation has provided excessive social manipulation and diversity training, stuff you would be better off learning at home on your own time.