Public vs private schools: The Great Ed funding debate continues

Among the conferees signing off on last year’s omnibus education bill are David Sharpe, D-Bristol, second from left, and Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, both sharp critics of the Scott adminstration’s approach to education funding in 2018. File photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger

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The Scott administration has declared an affordability crisis in public education, brought on by too few students in too many schools employing too much staff.

Cuts to the state’s public schools are part and parcel of Gov. Phil Scott’s read-my-lips refusal to countenance any increase in property taxes, and his stance has some questioning his commitment to quality public education.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, said Scott’s view of public education has been clouded by his focus on taxes, and likely will prevent him from being considered an “education governor.”

“Scott views public schools through the property tax lens almost exclusively,” Baruth said.

The state senator says the governor doesn’t recognize that the state has great public schools with a national performance ranking in the top five. Instead, Baruth said, the governor is only concerned with “cuts, cuts, cuts.”

The administration has a fundamentally different take on the situation. Jason Gibbs, the governor’s chief of staff, said there is persistent and growing unequal opportunities at local schools, indicated by test scores that, given what the state invests in education, should be higher. If there is pressure by the state on school districts, he said, it is to get kids more opportunities faster.

That is what Act 46 was meant to accomplish. The idea was to create more economies of scale by encouraging small school boards (Vermont has had the largest number of school boards in the nation, based on town districts) to consolidate into larger districts.

The objective is to improve efficiency and, ultimately, save money. Research conducted for this year’s budgeting process found that merging school boards did lead to shared resources and savings. Policymakers expect to see more savings over time.

But the administration says the savings aren’t happening fast enough — the governor is aggressively pushing to keep property taxes  flat rate for the next five years. To accomplish that, the governor’s office recommends a staff to student ratio threshold of 1 to 5.75. To meet that target, schools would have to reduce staff through attrition by about 1,000 statewide. Administrators, teaching staff and paraeducators would be affected by the threshold. Some very small schools would likely have to close if the ratio was mandated.

Read VTDigger’s school by school analysis of staff to student ratios.

Democrats in the Legislature have adamantly opposed the Scott administration’s five year plan.

Several prominent public school advocates say Scott wants to undermine public schools in order to lay the groundwork for a voucher system in Vermont.

The chasm between public schools and private schools that accept publicly-funded tuition-paying students is deepening and both sides have powerful supporters in Montpelier.

“We have a huge conflict in this state between public and private education, and there is a movement across the country” toward vouchers, said Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chair of the House Committee on Education.

Sharpe opposes vouchers because he said they divide up resources and make it impossible to educate all children well.

Gibbs said the five-year education plan is not about cuts or vouchers. Nor, he said, is it about protecting the status quo.

“Act 46 is working in some areas at some level but it is not working fast enough to reverse a crisis that exists in our education system with growing inequality [of opportunity] between schools,” he said. “It isn’t working fast enough to address the fact school boards are increasing their budgets while decreasing opportunities for their kids.”

Gibbs rejected the notion that the only way to speed up Act 46 would be to mandate school closures, which he said would be draconian. “Think about how much friction there was in just merging governance,” he said.

This is not Scott’s first clash with public education advocates. When he took on the teachers union to move health care negotiations from the local to the state level to save taxpayer money, union leaders compared him to the union-busting Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

In the past two legislative sessions, Scott has made decisions that educators point to as evidence the governor favors private schools over public education.

  • Scott has asked public school districts to keep spending flat or low.
  • He has called for cuts to staff in public schools only.
  • The governor has higher penalties for districts that spend too much money — even though excess spending is often related to the high cost of tuitioning out students to private schools.
  • He has appointed three people to the Vermont State Board of Education from choice areas with direct ties to private schools.

Jeff Francis, head of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the decisions give Scott the appearance of favoring the state’s private schools.

“I think recent actions do signal a protectionist mentality for the independent schools, and don’t support public schools in an equivalent manner,” Francis said.

Mill Moore, who is head of the Vermont Independent School Association, said private schools don’t feel as if they are getting special treatment. When education costs are cut, independent schools feel it, too, he said.

“It’s going to filter down to independent schools,” he said. “There is a linkage, it’s just not as direct.”

Sharpe said it has been “extraordinarily difficult” to fight off the administration’s constant assault on public education. “I feel like I’ve been standing in the doors of public schools, protecting them from the attacks of this administration,” he said.

Public and Private Schools are Competing for Kids

While 94 percent of Vermont students attend public schools, the population decline in rural areas of the state, especially the drop in the number of families with school-aged children, has intensified competition for students between public and private schools.

For example, Windsor High School — a public high school, surrounded by districts that have school choice — has seen a steady decline in enrollment. The public high school competes for students with Hanover High School, in New Hampshire, Thetford Academy and Sharon Academy. Royalton High School also has a shrinking student base and competes with Sharon Academy.

Moore says competition is not a universal problem in Vermont. “If there is competition,” he said, “It is on the margins, it is not a major deal.”

In February, the House Ways and Means Committee was presented with preliminary budget data showing that districts offering school choice spend as much as 40 percent more than public school districts.

The administration supports expanding school choice, despite the higher price tag. Gibbs said school choice is a draw for new families to the state.

“We are open to expanding choice, providing families more flexibility, we’re open to a per pupil block grant as we indicated in the January memo, but vouchers are not the policy objective here,” he said.

Cutting Staff and Tightening Spending Thresholds

Gibbs said some boards have become paralyzed and need the guidance provided by the governor’s plan — for student-to-staff ratios and excess spending thresholds– to move forward.

Jason Gibbs

As an example, he pointed to small schools continuing to operate even though they are within a few miles of another school.

Of the 42 small schools that qualify for the state’s small schools grant (by having 20 or fewer students per grade), 16 are within 10 miles of another school, according to a list developed by the Agency of Education for the state Board of Education.

Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards of Education, said there are a number of similarly sized private schools that survive on taxpayer subsidized tuitioned students from public school districts. The governor’s not applying the same level of pressure to those schools, Mace said.

“The governor has been up front about the need to close small schools, but never talked about closing small independent schools in Vermont, and there are a lot,” Mace said.

An example of a small private school receiving public money is the Learn School in Lyndon. There are 18 students, in grades 8-12, two teachers and one administrator, for a staff-to-student ratio of 1 to 4.5. Under Scott’s plan, the school would not have to cut staff.

While tightening staff ratios wouldn’t affect private schools, an excess spending threshold that would double-tax school districts that spend over a designated target, would apply to every public school district, including those with school choice.

Thirty-eight percent of school districts offering school choice would exceed the threshold. Of that number, two-thirds of the districts fund the operation of a school and tuition for choice students; a third pay tuition for all students.

Districts that operate an elementary school and tuition out students in the upper grades can only vote on the budget of the elementary school — taxpayers have no control over tuitioning costs. Districts that tuition out all students have no say over cost containment, because the tuition is set by the school the students are attending.

If the threshold is applied, Mace said, it is likely that school choice districts will cut the budgets of public elementary schools in order to pay tuition to private schools and avoid a tax hike.

Private schools such as the St. Johnsbury Academy, and Lyndon Institute are free to charge what they want; cost controls would be voluntary, Mace said. “So the districts impacted by the governor’s excess spending penalty tend to be small rural towns that pay tuition,” she said.

Private schools also are being squeezed by the state’s tightening budget, Moore said, citing a recent memo from the Acting Secretary of Education telling them they won’t get any more money for special education this year due to “budgetary pressures” on the education fund.

While this isn’t the first time it has happened, Moore said the administration’s rate freeze will affect 36 special education schools that take care of nearly 900 students with severe needs.

“The governor is focused on costs,” Moore said, adding, “everybody is feeling pain somewhere along the way.”

If Appointments are Symbolic, Public Schools Got the Message

Stephan Morse, a Republican, former House Speaker and chair of the state Board of Education, led the board through an earlier controversy involving private schools and public money.

Morse said the governor’s appointments to the board have been odd.

The appointment of Oliver Olsen, a former state representative from Londonderry, introduced legislation to expand school choice, and he once went after the board because he and others in the private school community felt the board had overstepped their authority. Olsen is a former member of the board of trustees of Burr and Burton Academy, in Manchester.

The 10-member state board is meant to guide public education in Vermont. Yet three of Scott’s appointees have strong ties to private schools. Only 6 percent of Vermont students attend private schools with public dollars.

Olsen and John O’Keefe both come from choice districts. The student member, Callahan Beck, the daughter of Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, is from St. Johnsbury Academy.

Some say the appointments bring balance to the state board, but others have seen it as a not so subtle message to public schools.

Gibbs described this view as “cynical” and said the appointments will strengthen the education system for all publicly-funded students. Private schools have found the state’s education agency, the Board of Education, and previous administrations to be “exceedingly hostile to their work and to their commitment to public education,” Gibbs said.

Baruth agreed that the appointments could help strengthen the board.

Olsen, in particular, is a good “watchdog,” Gibbs said.

“I think Oliver will be as tenacious in holding the AOE accountable on behalf of the Board and his colleagues as he was of holding the agency as a member of the Legislature,” he said.

The state board is an independent body while the secretary and agency of education report to the governor.

Come Together, Right Now

Gibbs said what the system needs now is to be rid of its us-versus-them mentality, and to come together to operate a system in the best interest of the kids.

He suggested that public and private school interests come together and check their competitive interests at the door. “That’s hard to do when there is a feeling that one side is trying to take advantage of the other – and that’s a two way street,” he said.

“That should, at some level, address this rumor mill theory that somehow what we are trying to do is create this massive voucher-driven competition that is meant to favor one type of school over another,” Gibbs said.

Sharpe, for one, isn’t buying that line from Gibbs. The lawmaker is retiring at the end of this session and he wants to make sure the public schools are safe from threats.

“Regardless of what Gibbs might say,” he said, “the action of cutting a half billion dollars out of public schools with no control on private schools speaks for itself.”

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