Rhetoric in Montpelier has a tendency to catch on, so people repeat it and then believe it. That is how misguided beliefs about education funding persist over time.
Rising property taxes are always cause for alarm, and politicians have made a habit through the years of promising to keep taxes in check. Why would they not? It’s what voters want to hear. But sometimes, their actions drive up property taxes. Then the same politicians who have driven up property taxes raise a clamor for schools to bring them down.
For example, the state has taken upon itself the responsibility for contributing money from the state general fund to the education fund. The general fund is derived from broad-based state taxes, including the income and sales taxes, and the more the state contributes from those sources, the less must be raised by payers of the property tax. Despite this reality, the Legislature and governor have failed to maintain an adequate state contribution to the education fund — thus forcing up property taxes.
Even though property taxes are going up this year, their trajectory in recent years ought to comfort taxpayers. According to an op-ed column by William Mathis, a former superintendent in Brandon and a current member of the state Education Board, the statewide property tax rate when the new education funding system began in the late 1990s, was $1.10. This year, the rate is going up — to $1.01. In the intervening years, the statewide rate fell; now, it is rising for a variety of reasons.
In recent years, voters at town meeting have done a good job of restraining school spending. Adjusted for inflation, education spending actually fell by 5 percent during the recession years between 2009 and 2012. It turns out local control is a good way of keeping school spending in check, and the fervor among policymakers to impose restraint from on high is unnecessary.
Budgets are creeping up again in 2014, and it stands to reason that they would after years of severe restraint. Deferred maintenance cannot be deferred forever. Negotiated salaries have built-in increases, usually modest. Health care costs continue to rise.
There are other changes that are pushing up the tax rate. These include declining enrollments. Local school districts are reimbursed by the state partly on the basis of enrollment numbers, and if there are fewer students enrolled, state funding will fall, forcing up the local rate.
The teacher-pupil ratio in Vermont is one of the lowest in the nation and spending per pupil is one of the highest, despite recent cuts in personnel and spending. Thus, taxpayers may be inclined to think that it would be good enough for Vermont to spend an average amount per pupil.
But it is useful to think about what average means. The average level of spending is dragged down by states that are negligent in the funding of schools. Idaho, Oklahoma, Arizona and Mississippi, for example, spend around half per pupil of what Vermont does, dragging the average way down. States spending at an average level are probably just barely keeping up.
Vermont has unique characteristics of geography and history that mean the state supports numerous small schools, which enjoy the advantages of a low teacher-student ratio. Worsening that ratio would only drive the level of education down to the mediocre level of the average.
Legislators concerned about rising taxes often talk about the possibility of consolidating administrative districts. But as Mathis points out, supervisory offices account for only 2.4 percent of education spending. Cutting that by 20 percent (a dubious prospect) would save about half a percentage point and would not be worth the disruption and the creation of the mega-bureaucracies that would follow.
Legislators, hearing from taxpayers about rising taxes, want to hurry up and do something. But their proposed solutions seldom have a basis in reality. In fact, Vermont has one of the fairest education-funding systems in the nation because of the way it combines local control with fair statewide sharing of revenue and bills taxpayers according to their ability to pay. It is complicated, but it has to be to achieve those important goals.
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