by Rob Roper
The Vermont Joint Fiscal office released a forty-three page report this month on the state of education financing, but its findings go much deeper than just the money. The system as a whole is broken – costs are rising, scores are falling. Beyond the numbers, members of Vermont’s public school bureaucracy recently described a situation inside the schools where, violence is on the rise, and “teachers are literally scared and administrators are at a loss.”
For a long time, Vermont had a reputation as a top education performer compared to other states, but that is changing. As the JFO report states:
“[W]hile Vermont has traditionally been better than the national average, over time it is moving down [on national test scores] and closer to the national average. These figures are particularly striking when considering the continued increase in education expenditures per pupil in Vermont without a commensurate change in student performance when compared to national trends.” – P.15
Public school apologists in Vermont, both in government and in the media, are quick to blame Covid and the school lockdowns as the culprit (which, lest we forget, the teacher’s unions wholeheartedly supported), but as you can see from this chart that ends in 2019, the decline in outcomes began long before Covid was a gleam in Anthony Fauci’s eye. Covid certainly didn’t help matters as the most recent scores not featured here showed even further drops in performance.
The costs Vermonters have had to bear in order to achieve these declining student outcomes are staggering, as anyone who pays property taxes can attest to. For the 2021-22 school year, the average per pupil spending rate was $23,299 compared to the national average of $14,360 and the New England average of $21,535. Since 2001, Vermont has climbed from the eighth highest per pupil expenditure in the country to the second highest.
The JFO report suggests potential cost drivers include “pupil teacher ratios, costs associated with special education and English Learner (EL) students, efficiency of supervisory union and district organization, system design of PreK programs, prevalence of instructional aides, and number of administrators.” P.17. Vermont has more staff per pupil than any other state.
Additionally, “According to the Digest of Education Statistic, in 2019, Vermont school districts employed approximately 18,700 staff members [to serve about 80,000 students]. If Vermont had the same pupils per staff as the national average, schools would employ approximately 7,700 fewer staff members.” P.21
Clearly all the “reforms” lawmakers have passed to ‘bend the curve’ of education spending and improve student outcomes over the past two decades have been a colossal failure. This list includes Act 60 and its many band aid fixes, Act 62 introducing public school governed “high quality” preschool, Act 46 school district consolidation, and the many policy experiments with things like proficiency based learning.
I would also add the cultural decisions to politicize education and students by injecting divisive political issues surrounding climate, race, gender, guns and electoral politics into curricula in place of a focus on the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s got to be hard to learn and certainly taxing on one’s mental health when your teachers are telling every day that you’ll be inheriting a world that’s going to spontaneously combust in a decade, if you survive the next school shooting, which you shouldn’t because you’re systemically racist, and, oh by the way you’re probably a boy trapped in a girl’s body or vice versa.
But, whatever the reasons, the results are undeniable that the system of educating our children in Vermont is not working – neither for the kids nor the teachers and staff. This is why S.56 – An act relating to child care and early childhood education, which would expand this broken system by a year to include full day preschool for four-year-olds should be absolutely unthinkable.
Libby Bonesteel, Superintendent of the Washington Roxbury school district, described in testimony to the House Education Committee what the public school experience is like today. “Every school system has students who are explosive in ways that we have never seen before…. Teachers are quite literally scared, and administrators are at a loss. People are getting hurt, and rooms are getting trashed…. We currently have one classroom that is covered in plywood because of the amount of damage students have done to the walls. I spend my mornings reshelving books in my elementary school’s library after a child ripped nearly 500 of them off the shelves.”
Sounds like a great environment to drop a four-year-old toddler into, no?
But this is what our lawmakers are about to do.
The way we deliver a safe, effective, quality education to our children needs to be re-thought and restructured. We do not need to pour more money into expanding the current dumpster fire that that is systematically failing too many of students already.
Share Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics