How Our Classrooms Are Being Cheated

by David Kelley

GREENSBORO – In my lifetime we have fought more than our share of senseless wars. The so-called “war on poverty” has been one of them. Its failures are too replete to recount in a short op ed, but surely schools are the front line of that war, and here in Vermont our educational funding formula continues to be one of our biggest failures. 

The average teacher’s salary at Hazen Union is $56,652. At South Burlington, the average teacher’s salary is $80,294. In Hardwick, Hazen’s biggest town, 17.6 percent of the families live below the poverty line. In South Burlington 6.63 percent of the families live below the poverty line.

Approximately one out of five students at Hazen Union requires special ed services. Approximately one out of ten students at South Burlington requires special ed services. Hazen Union spends $23,527 per special needs student. South Burlington spends $32,317.

As the former chair of the Hazen Union School Board and a volunteer debate coach for many years at both Hazen Union and South Burlington, I am familiar with both schools, and both are great in different ways. I have met great students and great teachers at both schools. But legislators need to appreciate the differences between these schools if the promise of Brigham, that all Vermont students are “entitled to substantially equal educational opportunity”, is ever going to be anything more than an empty promise.

The data points to differences that have profound classroom consequences. At Hazen Union, the differences are manifested in greater classroom management challenges, reduced learning opportunities, and increased teacher burnout.

One of Vermont’s most respected superintendents, a man who has devoted his career to some of Vermont’s most impoverished school districts, told me recently, “There are times when the needs are so great they can create a deficit mentality and lower expectations. It takes extraordinary principals, staff and teachers to transcend the weight of these needs, to sustain the responsibility to set high expectations and to advance all learners.” A budget crisis at some schools means cutting robotics programs. At Hazen Union and other schools it means cutting a behavioral specialist, home school coordinators or school-based clinicians.

In the Northeast Kingdom, levels of poverty are more shameful than ever. There is little hope of breaking a cycle of generational poverty without recognizing that substandard housing, substance abuse and unemployment have profound impacts on the classroom. We aren’t going to fix our housing problems or our substance abuse problems this year or this decade, but we can fix our education funding formula.

The funding formula needs to be weighted in a way that accounts for poverty and special needs. The formula needs genuine weighting, not categorical aid. As just one example, the way small school grants are now distributed makes a mockery of categorical aid. They are not trusted by school boards or communities. Act 173, likewise, cannot be implemented, except in conjunction with meaningful weighting, and even then it’s ramifications need to be carefully monitored and adjusted. A block grant based on census is inadequate to meet the needs of districts with high percentages of both poverty and special ed needs. 

There is irrefutable evidence that today’s educational funding formula is violating the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution. But providing equal educational opportunity to all Vermont students is not just a legal imperative. It is a moral and economic imperative, as well. If there is any hope for success in the war on poverty, the frontline will always be the classroom. 

[David Kelley is the former chair of the Hazen Union School Board.]