By Guy Page
S287, tilting state education funding more towards low-income towns, has been signed by Gov. Phil Scott – but not without extensive suggestions for improvements next year.
The ‘pupil weighting’ bill fundamentally alters the per-student funding balance created by Act 60 in 1997. 25 years ago, wealthier towns were spending more per-pupil than poorer towns. Act 60 sends the same amount of state money per pupil to each district. Yet unequal outcomes remain. To solve this problem, S287 abandons Act 60’s funding equality and directs more funding to lower-income school districts.
On May 23, Governor Scott signed the following bills:
- S122, required votes of presidential electors. This bill joins Vermont to a multi-state presidential ‘popular vote’ election scheme that in practice, although not in law, bypasses the Electoral College.
- S127, clarifying inmates’ community supervision furlough appeals and the powers of the Corrections Monitoring Commission.
- S220, provides collective bargaining rights to State-paid deputy sheriffs.
- S254, maintaining records of judgments and settlements paid by law enforcement agencies and a legal analysis of qualified immunity. S254 was introduced as stripping all Vermont police officers of their rights to not be sued in civil court for the performance of their duties, a right enjoyed by all other state and municipal employees. Lawmakers realizing it would lead to an even greater exodus of police officers from Vermont instead reduced the bill to a study of the impact of qualified immunity, and better record keeping of allegations against police.
- S287, improving student equity by adjusting the school funding formula and providing education quality and funding oversight. Scott sent the following letter to the Legislature:
Today, I am signing S287, improving student equity by adjusting the school funding formula and providing education quality and funding oversight, however, I believe our work in this area has just begun.
Despite the promises of Act 60 and the policy changes that have been made since its implementation, deep inequity persists in our education system. Despite the best efforts and sincere intentions of policymakers, there are unequal opportunities and outcomes for students from historically marginalized backgrounds, and based on socioeconomic status, school size and region.
Giving all students an equal chance at success has been a priority of mine since coming to office. And, while the current per pupil weighting formula is out of date, it is just one symptom of an unequal system of education, with increasing costs and decreasing opportunities, that requires fundamental reform. While S.287 does not rise to this level, I am signing it based on its goal of improving equity for all students and schools through updated pupil weighting.
However, we must acknowledge, S.287 does not guarantee more equal opportunities for kids. These new weights give certain schools the ability to spend more, but this bill does not require investment of these additional resources directly in students. Nor does new spending capacity mean there will be better outcomes. Vermont already spends more on K-12 education and has more teachers per pupil than nearly every other state. And to be clear, if our kids were receiving the maximum benefit, and equal opportunities, from this investment, I would welcome it. But the fact is, we are not delivering the quality or equal opportunity our kids deserve – and should receive based on what we spend.
We also know this bill risks further increasing the cost of our education system in a way that compounds these underlying issues – particularly if we continue to see fewer and fewer students alongside annual school budget growth of three to four percent, on average.
At the same time, the Legislature passed several other new policies, including universal school meals and PCB remediation, community schools, literacy reform and facilities repair that will likely lead to even higher costs for taxpayers. I urge the Legislature to work with my team, alongside our schools, to address cost containment and transparency to moderate the tax burden of the education funding system in the coming years.
Specifically, in the next biennium the Legislature should:
- Consider how a recession and/or a slowdown in real estate market may impact the five percent rate cap placed on districts.
- Adjust the timeline to ensure the Agency of Education has adequate time to conduct the needed rate reviews before the Department of Taxes sends out tax rate letters.
- For FY26, reinstate the requirement that districts disclose the year over year percentage change and dollar change in per pupil spending. I understand why it was suspended for FY25, as per pupil spending won’t be comparable to the prior year. But following this transitional year, voters have the right to know the annual change in spending.
We have time to make these changes before this new formula takes effect. Most importantly, we must improve student outcomes and provide equal access to a quality education for all kids, while also ensuring Vermonters can afford it. We can only achieve true equity and better outcomes by working towards both goals, together.