Spotlight on Vermont's Education Financing System

The long awaited report on Vermont’s Education Financing system, the so-called Picus Report, was published in its final form on January 18th and the two main authors, Lawrence Picus and Allan Odden, made a tour of various legislative committees the week before, in preparation for its release.  In general, the report is very positive.  According to the report, the “Vermont school funding system is working well and meeting the goals established in Acts 60 and 68.”  Picus and Odden praised Vermont for a unique solution to the problem of inequity in education funding across school districts with vastly different economic bases.  As a result of Acts 60 and 68, the report found “virtually no relationship between wealth (measured by both district property wealth and personal income) and spending levels.”

There is no doubt that Acts 60 and 68 have significantly reduced the inequities of Vermont’s public education system and improved educational opportunity for our lower income students and for all students living in towns with lower property values.  Compared to other states, Vermont has achieved near perfect equity.  However, the report also points out that wealthiest towns, when wealth is measured by residential property, continue to spend more on education than other towns though the gap is much smaller than it used to be. Interestingly, the study shows no correlation between income and the decision to spend more on education.[1]Acts 60 and 68 have effectively removed that relationship.

The goal of creating an equitable public education system is to make sure that all students have access to and receive a decent education. And while fiscal equity has largely been accomplished, the achievement gap between lower and higher income students across the state and even within school districts persists. Equitable funding is a necessary part of ensuring that all students get a decent education, but it’s clear now that equitable funding is not the whole solution.

As Picus and Odden made their rounds in the legislature, the recurring sentiment was that with fiscal equity accomplished, it’s time to focus on achievement. While test scores have crept up slightly, including those for low income students, some feel the growth seems too slow given the amount of money Vermont is spending.  Members of the House and Senate asked Picus and Odden to help strategize how to get a better return on our investment with regard to student achievement.  Achievement questions were parsed out in several ways, the most heavily discussed being:

  1. How can we work harder to close the achievement gap between our disadvantaged populations and traditionally high achieving students?
  2. How can we raise the percentages overall of Vermont students rating at least proficient on our standardized testing so that we are not only leading the nation, but also doing better relative to the rest of the world.
  3. Why isn’t the rate of students going on to post-secondary education programs keeping pace with the improvements we’re making in high school graduation rates and what can we do to better prepare and motivate them?

Looking forward, we can expect that the conversation on closing the achievement gap between lower and higher income students will continue with a new vigor. At the moment, the education committees are considering the impact of teacher quality on the achievement gap, in particular, the role of teacher training, selection, and professional development as a critical factor impacting academic success.  They are also interested in determining the potential impact of shared goals to help guide local school districts in their curricular planning and development.

Voices for Vermont’s Children agrees with the conclusions of the Picus report and the legislature’s general satisfaction with Vermont’s current education funding system.  We support the legislature’s decision, in light of Vermont’s persistent struggle to raise test scores, to redouble its attention and energy on closing the achievement gap.  As the conversation around Vermont’s education funding mechanism indicates, equity in education, both with regard to opportunity and impact, is an effort that we wage on behalf of Vermont’s large population of children disadvantaged by poverty.  As such, recognizing poverty as the fundamental cause, the Vermont Child Poverty Council has identified the achievement gap as one of its issues. The achievement gap is measured in the classroom, but the route to closing it extends beyond education itself into our communities and must represent a broader effort to reduce the impacts of poverty on Vermont’s children.

[1] See figure 4.6 on page 45 of the working draft.