Last year brought good news for Vermont’s 15-year-old school funding system. An extensive study for the Legislature by Lawrence O. Picus and Associates concluded that Vermont provides “equal access to all towns for raising revenues for pre-K-12 education.”
Further, the study found, the system “has reduced the variation in student achievement in reading and mathematics across schools.” Vermont’s school funding system is fair to taxpayers because all school districts have the same ability to raise revenue for their schools. And that’s been good for students.
That success speaks well of Vermonters, who have long recognized that educating our children is one of our most important responsibilities as a state. In fact it’s so important that it’s specifically mentioned in the Vermont Constitution.
Still, some people argue that the state is spending too much for education. They’ve been calling for new controls on spending or school consolidation as a way to bring costs down. And the question is alive every year when each school board asks for approval of a budget at town meeting.
Is Vermont spending too much? Let’s look. In relative terms, statewide spending for public pre-K-12 education in Vermont has held steady for 20 years — at about 5.5 to 6 percent of the state’s economy (gross state product, or GSP). Compare that to statewide health care expenditures. They’ve doubled from about 10 percent of GSP in 1992 to nearly 20 percent in 2012. The growth in health care costs is clearly a problem; our spending on education — measured against the overall economy — is sustainable.
Vermont’s per-pupil spending does rank high among the states: fifth in the U.S. census ranking, second in the NEA’s. But shouldn’t every state want to be first when it comes to education? Let’s look at what Vermont’s getting for its money.
Vermont’s public school students have among the highest test scores in the country and the highest (or second highest) graduation rate. Do we want to strive for mediocrity instead?
Because Vermont has an equitable system, we spend close to the statewide per-pupil average on every student. Other states keep their averages — and their taxes — down by spending an inadequate amount on lots of children. Vermont used to shortchange many of its kids, too. Do we want to reduce our average spending by returning to the old inequitable system?
Another angle on spending is to consider the private marketplace. According to a 2011 study in Massachusetts, non-religious private schools spent $32,000 per pupil, not including room and board. That compares with public schools, which spent $13,000 per pupil in the same year. The study concludes that the market value of a high-quality education is much nearer to $32,000 than $13,000. In other words, public schools are not too expensive; they’re a bargain.
So is Vermont spending too much? Only if you think that demonstrated excellent results and equitable treatment of students and taxpayers — all at a competitive price — are too much.
Paul A. Cillo is president of Public Assets Institute in Montpelier. This essay first appeared in the October newsletter of the Vermont School Boards Association.
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