Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rep. Laura Sibilia, an independent who represents the Windham-Bennington district in the Vermont House of Representatives, and Katherine Sims, of Craftsbury, the director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative and a Democratic candidate for the Vermont House.
For the last 20 years, our public education system has overtaxed and underfunded schools in Vermont’s rural and poor towns. According to the Pupil Weighting Factors Report commissioned by the Legislature to study equity in Vermont’s education funding formula, we incentivize spending less on students who cost more to educate and more on students who cost less to educate. Over the past 20 years, this has resulted in fewer opportunities and increased costs for poor and rural schools and higher taxes for Vermonters.
Despite the best efforts of our school boards, the chronic underfunding has stretched budgets to an extreme and left our schools with challenges like long overdue building maintenance issues, a lack of Pre-K slots, and fewer opportunities for advanced classes and study abroad programs to name just a few.
Prior to the pandemic, we joined with Vermonters from districts with high poverty, districts with high ELL needs, and other rural districts to demand action from the Legislature this year. We faced a legislative body unwilling to act with urgency due in part to the tax implications in an election year for large wealthy school districts who have been over-accessing state education dollars for decades.
Now with the Covid-19 crisis, these same high poverty and rural communities are experiencing new challenges. For example, most of the schools in our districts will struggle to afford HVAC systems that would help make indoor schooling safer in the fall or added counselors to meet the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. These same students throughout rural Vermont are impacted by the lack of access to broadband internet. These challenges have a real, lasting impact on the lives of Vermont kids.
We know parents, teachers and administrators are working overtime to make really difficult choices. We know that the Agency of Education is working with superintendents and boards to address urgent issues for reopening including the numbers of student days, state aid and HVAC funding, staffing, child care, and broadband connectivity. We also know there is a shared understanding that, despite herculean efforts, inequities will worsen as a result of the pandemic. We cannot simply accept further deterioration of opportunity for some students. Legislators must act in the coming session to acknowledge the worsening of existing inequities, to show we understand that our students with the least means are being asked to give up even more during the pandemic, and to let those students and their communities know that help is on the way.
For too long, Vermont’s vulnerable students, those who need the most support, have been penalized for where they live. This crisis requires an urgent response to ensure equitable resources for all. If the Legislature fails to address the systemic issues outlined in the Weighting Factors report, there will certainly be legal action, and that will further delay addressing the inequity we are actively ignoring. To avoid further harm after 20 years of inequity in school resources, the General Assembly must take action during this upcoming session to implement the weighting recommendations contained in the Pupil Weighting Factors Report. We must act now to ensure that all Vermont children, no matter where they live, have equal opportunity to thrive.
We encourage all those engaged in Vermont’s educational community, and particularly those in poor and rural districts, to contact their legislators and demand action on behalf of our students and taxpayers.