An Important Step Towards Equity for All Kids

Rep. Katherine Sims

CRAFTSBURY – On June 7, Governor Scott endorsed with his signature a bill that takes a first step to correcting a decades old inequity in our ed funding formula that harms both rural and urban districts alike. I supported this bill as it made its way through the legislature, finally receiving unanimous support in the House and the Senate. S.13 isn’t just another task force: it’s long overdue recognition of the existence of a decades-old flaw in our education funding formula and a signal that the legislature and the Scott Administration are finally seeking to fix this flawed system.

The Pupil Weighting Factors Report, commissioned by the legislature, told us that our current school funding system fails to deliver the Vermont Constitution’s promise of equal educational opportunity to our most vulnerable children. We learned that the current weighting factors do not accurately reflect the true cost of educating children, which is greater in smaller, high-poverty districts and districts with a larger proportion of English language learners. According to the report, those weights have “weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs for educating students.” This means that our current system penalizes students depending on where they live and that some communities have been overtaxed and their schools underfunded for more than 20 years. 

Up here in the Northeast Kingdom, schools are faced with the increased costs associated with serving high-poverty, rural communities. That means increased social, emotional, mental health, behavioral, and academic support needs — all a part of larger systemic inequities in our society — along with the additional expenses associated with operating a geographically isolated school. 

I’ve seen our school boards doing the very best they can with inequitable access to resources. Yet, tending to the basic needs of students has stretched budgets to an extreme and left little for other important priorities like caring for our buildings or providing programming opportunities. Staff across the region deal every day with septic problems, failing boilers, ventilation concerns, mold, and old roofs compromised by heavy snow loads. Children are turned away from pre-K programs because of a lack of space. Students don’t have access to as many language courses, advanced placement, or foreign travel opportunities as some larger districts.

I want my children, and all Vermont children, to have an equal opportunity to thrive. No matter where they live. We have a legal and moral obligation to act urgently on the Pupil Weighting report. We must adjust how we calculate the cost of educating students to restore equitable resources for all. 

I thank the House and Senate Committees for their work on S.13, and I thank Governor Scott for signing. This bill is an important step toward creating an action plan and future legislation to correct the pupil weights. 

I’m grateful that while we work on a long-term solution, we are also providing schools with immediate relief from the excessive spending penalty so they can provide their students with the same quality education as neighboring communities.

I know that there is concern about how communities that have been incorrectly over-weighted for decades will react and adjust to the implementation of the corrected weights. As we work towards a more just and equitable system, I believe we need to stay focused on those populations who have been harmed by these systems of inequity. I want to caution our body against creating a false equivalence between the harmed districts and the over-weighted districts that will be asked to exist under an equitable system. Equity is not a zero-sum game. Everyone in Vermont will benefit from a fair, equitable education system. 

During this time of an influx of federal dollars, it is in our best interest to create a thoughtful approach to implementing the corrected weights that mitigates the impacts of the corrected weights on over-weighted districts. 

And, while this bill is an important step forward, it is just a step. In 2018, we asked for a report to study this issue. This year, we’re asking for a plan to implement the recommendations from the report. And then next year, we must implement the plan.

My children and my neighbors’ children deserve to go to a school with a functioning boiler, where they get to eat lunch in a cafeteria instead of at their desk, where music is held in a classroom not a closet, and where the roof doesn’t leak. They deserve art classes, STEM programs, and after-school programming. They deserve the resources they need to be successful. 

Our work isn’t done until all public school students have equitable access to educational opportunities.

[State Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, also represents Albany, Barton, Glover, Greensboro, Sheffield, and Wheelock.]