We succeed if schools succeed
Once again the voters of Montpelier have approved a school budget by an overwhelming margin. Now it is the responsibility of all who are directly involved with the public schools here — teachers, students and their parents, school commissioners and staff — to ensure that the community receives the best possible educational outcome from this substantial investment in its children’s future.
At the same time we must acknowledge that the state educational funding formula needs to be revisited by the state Legislature. That formula, as currently constituted and funded, delivered a punishing 13 percent increase in the education portion of our residential property tax (when the school commissioners had approved a budget with less than a 2.5 percent increase). Montpelier was only one of many Vermont communities that experienced a wildly disproportionate negative impact of the formula on its residential property tax this year
Public schools are recognized across the state as our most important infrastructure. Voters want to support that infrastructure but have indicated that the property tax has reached or is reaching its limit as a source of that support. The state needs to increase its appropriation to the formula to resolve this crisis. It does not need, as the Legislature is now considering, to radically consolidate school districts and close schools with “low” enrollment, thereby ripping out the communal heart of our small towns and rendering school governance more remote from the citizenry.
And where will we find the funds to fix the formula? Here’s a plan that is a virtuous twofer: Increase state support for public schools within the formula using revenues generated by raising the top marginal rates of the state income tax. The two virtues are funding education at a level consistent with the needs of our children while at the same time bending, if ever so slightly, the curve on the growth of income inequality. Bear in mind that income inequality has soared in America as the top marginal federal income tax rate has fallen from 91 percent in 1963, to 70 percent in 1981, to 50 percent in 1986, to 39 percent in 2013.
Vermont ranks in the middle third of states as measured by income inequality. Surely we can afford, as a state, to do more to support our public schools. Education as preparation for productive and satisfying lives is key to combating the hopelessness that feeds many social ills, including our current opiate addiction epidemic. We all benefit to the extent that our schools succeed — and pay a prohibitive price when they fail to meet the challenge.
David R. Abbott
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