As we enter our sixth week of this 2017 Legislative Session, the differences in priorities between Governor Phil Scott and the Democratic majority in the legislature seem to be getting clearer.

 

As Governor Scott has demanded no new taxes and fees on Vermont families and businesses this year, legislative efforts that seem to be gaining traction include increasing the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour and instituting paid family and medical leave for workers.  And, as the Governor proposed a level-funded Fiscal Year 2018 state budget, the legislature last week dealt a serious blow to his proposal by defeating his proposal to change the date of school budget votes.

 

 

Specifically, in his budget proposal, the Governor called for the level-funding of K-12 school budgets this year, in order to pay for increased investments in higher education, early childhood education, economic development efforts, housing, and for combatting our opiate epidemic, among other items.  By level-funding school budgets, he argued, the money would be there, without raising taxes on Vermonters, to ensure we protect our most vulnerable, and make these much-needed investments.

 

Almost immediately, protests came from all directions.  First, those who claim to support local control of education decried the ultimate loss of it with this proposal.  And second, more reasonably in my view, school boards throughout the state cried foul, as they are in the final stages of their budget development process.

 

While this is a significant change being proposed, and the timing of it is certainly a challenge, the discussion is a critically important one to have, as the now $1.6 billion we spend on K-12 education has suffocated any hope of investing in other critical items.  So, I applaud the Governor for taking it on.

 

The bottom line is, though, we are at this point now because of our abject failure to address the broken education finance system that has brought us to this point – a system that encourages higher and higher spending with little accountability for such spending.

 

So, first with regard to local control: let's be honest here.  The Legislature, and Montpelier in general, stripped away the biggest chunk of local control in 1997.

 

And, since that time, at least through my 11 years, the Legislature has done nothing but take more and more local control away from our communities, including the passage of Act 46, forcing the mergers of local districts.  For crying out loud, just a few years ago the legislature even passed a law dictating what kind of cleaning products our schools can purchase.

 

I share the vision to ensure more local control in both the delivery of education and education policies, and have fought for it every step of the way.

 

Even just in the last few years, I fiercely opposed the forced merger bill that ended up becoming Act 46, I have supported independent schools and school choice, and have opposed in any way possible, the proposed rules governing independent schools and the creation of Alternative Structures under Act 46.

 

Where is the rest of Montpelier’s Democratic legislative leadership on those core local control issues?  Simply put, nowhere.  In fact, in many instances, they are lining up right next to the State Board of Education and Agency of Education as the two try to wrest more control away from the local communities and families.

 

The local control argument coming from many in Montpelier is disingenuous, to say the least.

 

The real issue, however, in this particular instance, is when you have the revenue raising at the state level and the spending at the local level, there has to be some connection made.  It’s like my sister having my checkbook.  That is the underlying problem with the system we have in place, and it lends itself to higher and higher spending with no accountability for that spending.  And, those statewide spending increases in K-12 education have caused the property tax crisis we have, and we have to somehow address it.

 

To be clear, we are expected to spend, this year, $1.6 billion on K-12 education.  That is up from $1.3 billion in 2010 and up from $1 billion in 2005.

 

That is a $600 million increase in K-12 spending during the same period our student population declined by approximately 16,000 pupils to approximately 88,000.  We somehow need to reconnect our revenue raising with our revenue spending.

 

Meanwhile, through these same years, we have seen our Vermont State College system struggling to sustain itself and low and middle-income families unable to afford early childhood education.  We are also in desperate need of significantly increased investments in our economic development efforts, housing, and in the prevention and treatment of our opiate epidemic.

 

But, we cannot make those investments until we can get K-12 spending under control.  By not addressing K-12 education spending, i.e., the education funding system, we have allowed everything else to suffocate.

 

The bottom line is we have failed the families and businesses of Vermont for years by not fixing our broken education funding system.  I now look forward to the proposal from the legislative leadership to increase the needed investments I outlined above without raising taxes and fees on Vermonters.