Education Challenges in Vermont

As the legislature once again grapples with education, excuse me education spending, or is it education taxes – it is important for Vermonters to pay attention to which walnut shell the pea is under.

If that sounds confusing, it is! Worse, it is not accidental. Everytime the issue comes up many political leaders change the subject to fit their own agenda. Did anybody mention educating children? Funny how that never seems to be the focus of the discussion.

Ever since the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that financing schools based on the grand list of individual towns was inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional, the legislature has struggled to find a legal mechanism, which is more or less fair, and does not place an unbearable burden on Vermonters.

They have failed.

They have failed because they will not deal with the essential unfairness of Vermont’s tax system, not just education taxes, all taxes. For almost 100 years the fundamental public principle of taxation in the United States is that income should be the basis for measuring the individual’s responsibility to society as a whole, and that those who make the most, should pay the most. That is what we call progressive taxation.

Ever since that principle was established, those who have the most, the wealthiest among us, have tried to subvert that principle…first by transferring taxation from income to transactions (sales taxes, although not transactions like stock transfers, lawyers fees, financial services, etc. that are primarily engaged in by the wealthy); by flattening the progressivity of the system (reducing top rates), with the golden prize being a flat tax; and most importantly by reducing government spending to the lowest possible level.

At the same time, attacks on government spending, deification of private business and the efficiency of the markets have distorted the purpose of government (providing for the common good) in order to justify privatizing services for the benefit of businesses who take them over, and subsidize private profits through various “economic development” programs which serve corporate and shareholder interests at the expense of the citizenry.

These trends have dominated the discussion about education in Vermont as well. Starting with Act 60, when under the threat of a veto from then governor Howard Dean, the legislature took a “hands off” approach to the state income tax; the means of paying for schools have struggled to raise enough money in an equitable manner. The problem is that the means they chose to achieve income equity were complicated at best, and unfair in many circumstances.

What sense does it make that the “value” (and therefore property taxes) of a house, which has been in the same family for generations, should double because of the distortions of the Vermont housing market?

What sense does it make to require Vermonters to use an accountant to fill out their taxes just to find out whether they are eligible for income sensitivity, the proof being that many people do not even apply for what they are entitled to?
Even today, when more political leaders are coming to the realization that much of the cost of education should be based on the ability to pay, how fair can it be when those Vermonters whose income is “unearned” (stocks, bonds, property speculation, etc.) is taxed at a much lower rate than someone who works at Wal-Mart?

As if that is not enough, there are those who claim we are just spending too much on the schools. Of course they don’t say provide less education, graduate kids who cannot go to college or compete in the knowledge market that is 21st Century America, but that is what many of them mean.

There are major drivers of school cost: healthcare, heat (which includes heating efficiency), Special Ed costs and the proper percentage of school funds going to administrative personnel. There are no easy answers to many of these questions, but how can they be ignored?The legislature had its’ chance on healthcare. The House began the process of moving towards a universal healthcare system that would have taken insurance company admin costs and profits out of the picture, but that was killed by the Governor and the Democratic leadership’s unwillingness to face up to the Governor’s blocking any real progress.

Many small schools in Vermont are old buildings, which are energy inefficient. Most school systems cannot afford to do much in the way of retrofitting these buildings or replacing them. With ever increasing costs for oil and gas, this is a place where school costs can be reduced, but not by individual towns.

Another danger to our schools is the trend of privatization. Whether this means making sure public moneys are not transferred to private schools, or contracting out janitorial and other services. The fact is that the only way privatization saves money is by reducing the wages of the people who do the work. There are demagogues who argue that teachers shouldn’t get good health care because voters are denied it by their employers. Does it make sense to hire teachers on the cheap when we are depending on them to help our children grow up into citizens and people who have the tools to live a “good life?”

Yet, none of this speaks to educating our children. There is a need for a proactive conversation in this state, involving Vermonters of all kinds – rich and poor, rural and urban, from small towns and big, about what we want our schools to provide for our kids.

Coming to some agreement on those questions, how to offer an academic experience that meets the needs of children who want to go on to become PhD’s as well as those who want to farm; children who may take over a family business (or start one of their own) as well as kids who want to find a way to make their life out of doors. An education which makes a young person want to spend a life time learning while living even if they never go past high school. That is the social value of education. If we keep these ideas in the front of our minds we may be able to solve the financial issues in a fair manner which makes real Vermont’s state motto: Freedom for the individual and Unity with the community.

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