Projections for another increase in education spending next year have amplified calls for fiscal restraint. But some people say the price tag on public schools isn’t all that unreasonable.
Student counts peaked in 1997 at about 105,000, and have slid by about 20 percent since. Spending on public education, meanwhile, has risen from about $800 million in 1997 to about $1.5 billion over the same period. Per-pupil costs, not surprisingly, have risen more sharply, from about $11,000 per student in 1997 to about $17,000 today.
Those numbers, which have fueled sizeable increases in statewide property tax rates in recent years, have spawned calls from just about every corner in Montpelier for cost-cutting reforms at public schools.
“The bottom line is we have spending problem in Vermont,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said this week.
Shumlin’s view of the problem is pretty representative of the political class in Montpelier. House Speaker Shap Smith has demonstrated even more resolve than the governor in finding a legislative solution to the “spending problem.”
But a handful of policy analysts, and a dwindling number of lawmakers, however, are questioning the over-spending assumption on which reform proposals are being built.
Jack Hoffman, senior policy analyst at the left-leaning think tank, Public Assets Institute, says spending on public schools isn’t as exorbitant as some have suggested.
“I’m not questioning their motives,” Hoffman says. “I just think they need to look a little more closely to figure out exactly what problem they have that they’re trying to fix.”
Spending on public education as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product, for instance, has gone unchanged for the last 20 years – it accounts for about 5.5 percent of overall economic activity. Compare that to the cost of health care, which went from consuming 10 percent of the state GDP in 1992 to 20 percent today.
And as a percentage of overall state and local tax dollars, the amount Vermonters spend on public education has also remained steady in recent decades. Public schools eat up a substantial slice of the tax pie – 47 percent of it, in fact. But according to Census data, that’s about the same proportion as in the early 1990s.
“So we’ve looked at what we spend on education against some other background measures to see whether that’s really happened – whether what we spend on education has suddenly gotten out of whack with other things.”
Critics counter by noting the precipitous drop in student enrollment since its peak in 1997. Fewer kids, they argue, ought to mean lower costs.
But Martha Allen, president of the Vermont-NEA, says schools have been called on to deliver social services unprecedented in the history of public education. Allen recalls a visit to a second-grade classroom recently, where four staff members, including the teacher, worked to accommodate a number of special-needs students.
“And I was thinking, if I was a legislator and I was trying to cut back on staff, which seems to be part of the conversation with this high spending issue, which one of these students would lose that assistance that he or she is getting?” Allen says.
Tunbridge Rep. Sarah Buxton says lawmakers are right to be mindful of costs. But the Democrat – she sits on the House Committee on Education – says many of her colleagues in Montpelier don’t understand the programs and services the education tax dollars support.
“The simplicity of a broad generalization like spending is the problem misses the real issues that we have to grapple with,” Buxton says.
Educating children, and doing it as well as Vermont does, Buxton says, is expensive work. While per-pupil costs in Vermont are among the highest, if not the highest, in the nation, students here are also near the top of the charts in test scores.
“I think we have to approach the challenge of funding a 21st century education system through lens of investment in future economic stability,” Buxton says. “That’s a far more accurate starting place for the cost-benefit conversation regarding the use of education funds.”
So far at least, Buxton, Hoffman and others with the same perspective on the spending issue are losing the debate in Montpelier. Fresh of a disappointing election cycle in which Democrats say they heard from voters about the fiscal brutality of rising property taxes, key leaders, namely Speaker Smith, say they’re ready to proceed with substantial cost-cutting reforms.
And even politicians who aren’t convinced that schools have a “spending problem” may be ready to adopt cost-cutting measures just the same.
Sen. Dick McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, has been a champion of the small schools that many lawmakers say it’s time to shutter. McCormack says he isn’t ready to sign on to any specific reform plan just yet. But he says he’s feeling more of an imperative from voters to do something to reduce costs.
“If we look at the math, the hard metrics, a very strong case can be made that our school taxes are not unreasonable. However, that’s not how many Vermont taxpayers experience it,” McCormack says. “I hear from constituents that they just can’t afford their school taxes. And I as an elected representative can’t just ignore that.”
This article was corrected at 2:12 p.m. on 12/3/2014 to correct an error related to total education spending in 1997