A view behind the curtain: A Letter to House Ways and Means

Below is an email from the Executive Director of CVTSE to Representative Emilie Kornheiser (Brattleboro) and the House Ways and Means Committee that "… is the best and most compelling executive summary prepared to date by the Coalition." Ted Plemenos, Director of Finance, Rutland City Public Schools

From: Marc Bernard Schauber (CVTSE)
Date: Mon, Apr 11, 2022 at 10:15 AM
Subject: Re: S.287


Thank you for your reply.  I know your time is valuable and with all the time you’re putting into re-writing S.287, finding the time to put a thorough response together couldn’t have been easy to find.

Let me say first that I am not concerned about how S.287 affects my district.  My job as Executive Director for the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity to be focused on  the long term equity for not only our member districts, but all students in Vermont.  As you know, RVUSD is made up of two towns, Dover and Wardsboro.  Dover has been working for more than 20 years to get this inequity corrected.  Dover, RVUSD and CVTSE headed into this past summer working to implement the recommendations from the December 24, 2019 Pupil Weighting Factors Report.  We have all put our money where our mouth is… and that is despite the fact that Dover would have seen a tax increase.

It’s really important to understand that, despite the efforts being made under the Golden Dome, we aren’t focused on district by district comparisons.  We’ve seen the extraordinary efforts being made to pit Coalition members against each other.  Our member districts remain as united, if not more so today, than we have in the past.  Burlington, Winooski and all 27 of our member districts see through the rhetoric and misleading statements.  For many reasons, you aren’t going to convince Burlington or Winooski to abandon their work for true equity by throwing a few cent difference in tax rates at them, which are based on essentially fictitious numbers…  no different than you aren’t going to endorse pupil weights simply because it means a $0.14 additional increase, total of $0.20, for your district that so desperately needs the tax capacity they would have received from implementation of the recommendations from the December 24, 2019 Pupil Weighting Factors Report.

And since so many seem to want to point to specific districts to make their argument for the Reverse Foundation Formula… consider this.  Based on the Feb 2020 analysis done by JFO which was based on the B.1 simulation in the report, with the only exception being they chose to leave the small schools grant in place and not include the small schools weight in their simulation, WSESD would have seen a $0.15 reduction.  So between the task force work and W&M, WSESD will effectively be facing a $0.35 increase.  So there’s that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind all of us that while tax rates are what is being used to represent changes, the fact is that what we are talking about is taxing capacity.  Capacity that would be utilized by underweight districts to bring their level of services and programs up to an equitable level.  I know you’ve heard this repeated many times… underweight districts will be using their taxing capacity for the benefit of their communities.  Many of those communities have been forced to raise taxes above equitable levels because the state has been short changing them.  Those districts should be able to make the decisions locally about whether what’s best for their community is a mix of greater spending and tax reduction or just greater spending.  The Reverse Foundation Formula denies local communities of the ability to make what need to be local decisions.  By upending the education funding system, you are flat out telling taxpayers, elected school board members, district administrators, parents and students that you know what’s best for every community and school district in Vermont.  That’s an unnecessary power grab that rightfully perpetuates the ever growing belief that the government works against the people and not for the people.

Regarding the argument that the Reverse Foundation Formula and weights deliver on the goal of equity is unbelievably shortsighted.  You’re sitting there making decisions without having received input from those of us on the ground and thinking that the spreadsheets that have been put in front of you represent reality or the future.  That belief is greatly flawed:

  1. You’re using fictitious data
  2. You’re using constant spending
  3. You’ve renamed grants to suit your needs and are making claims that using grants isn’t significantly more susceptible to political manipulation than are weights.  The idea that you can design a system of grants that’s baked into the system is a great talking point, but doesn’t hold water.
    1. Consider the situation where a group of legislators don’t believe it’s worth spending $10k on a student living in poverty or $25k on an ELL student (and face it, there are currently members of the House that hold those opinions.)  Since you’ve chosen to put a dollar figure on a certain category of student, it’s very easy for this group of legislators to put an amendment on the floor to cut those numbers.  That change is, as you’ve put it, ‘simple.’  The effort and time to make any sort of a similar attack using weights is far greater and complicated.  Putting a dollar figure on the head of students is bad policy and will have a detrimental effect on the self esteem of students.  You will have community members who don’t want to fund students in poverty or ELL students fighting with school boards.  Think the mascot, CRT and mask fights were bad?
    2. Consider the situation where the economy goes in the dumpster again. The legislature is going to be looking for money.  While you may not call these grants, that’s what they are, even if only ELL is “categorical with significant restrictions.” You may claim the money is baked into the large ed funding budget line, but once again, having put a ‘simple’ system in place that puts a dollar on the head of a student and then multiplies the number of students, changing that dollar amount is quite easy.  Making the same change under the pupil weighting equity formula take real thought and evaluation.
  4. Your efforts to claim the average dollar figure you’re using in the Reverse Foundation Formula is the same as the average costs used to create the weights is, again, misleading.  I’ll get back to this after I address your claim that a feature of the equity formula is an error.
    1. Fact is you are creating a system where some districts will receive less funding than they need, a small number will receive exactly what they need and some will receive more than they need.  That’s not only, by definition, inequitable, but a concerted effort to create a system built on a bug.
    2. Let’s ignore for a minute that this is a ploy right out of the right wing playbook.  Let’s ignore that it’s built on a foundation of classism, racism and poverty shaming.  It produces the very same environment that the recommendations of the 2019 Pupil Weighting Factors Report were designed to correct.  Overweight districts will get more funding than they need, and will spend it, raising taxes for all Vermonters.  Underweight districts will get less funding than they need and will be left with the same choices they have now, raise taxes so they can provide the appropriate education or cut programs and services since their tax base can’t afford the state imposed penalty for not having a wealthy district.  Nice bug/error.
  5. The costs to provide for the needs of their students won’t just vary across the state… the rates with which they rise will vary.  This is another area where the Reverse Foundation Formula falls flat.  Your argument that, essentially, the average is good enough and it’s up to local communities to make up the difference, flies in the face of Brigham’s assertion that it’s the state’s responsibility.  You’re trying to have your tax capacity victory cake and eat it too. You want to be able to say the state’s education funding system is equitable, but you’re leaving the last mile, to draw a phrase from the world of broadband, up to local taxpayers to cover.  But you won’t let local school boards and taxpayers make the decision of what to do with their ‘equitable’ tax capacity, instead believing it’s appropriate for the state to tell underweight districts what to do when you haven’t been telling overweight districts the same for the past 25 years. 

The  costs are different to educate different categories of students in different parts of the state.  Weights account for those differences and grants do not, period.  While average costs were used to statistically determine the weights, weights are not a static dollar amount while your system of grants is just that. 

Now let’s talk about transparency and simplicity/communicating with the public:

  • Transparency/Accountability:
    • The data do not include the roughly $42M tax increase because you’ve chosen a path which makes ELL a grant taken off the top of the education fund.
    • If transparency was of interest to Ways and Means, you would design a system where school boards have the information that’s necessary to present an accurate tax rate to their taxpayers.  Because we all know that technically they vote on the budget amount, but what matters most to them is the tax rate that budget creates.
    • Transparency is a responsibility of school boards, one we take very seriously.  We take the time to explain the numbers we provide tax payers.  If we don’t, budgets fail.  You don’t have that problem, taxpayers don’t get to vote on the budget you all set.
    • Our system of pupil weighting is well understood by superintendents, business managers and school boards.  See, these are the people preparing the budget and they are the ones that need a solid understanding of how to get from A to B.  
  • Simplicity:
    • This one I have to give you…  adding and multiplying dollar figures is much simpler than using a system based on equity that takes a little time and effort to execute and explain.  But in the simplicity vs true equity debate, we know which side we each come out on.

During her various times testifying, Professor Kolbe has told you about the limitations of the Reverse Foundation Formula.  She has also told you that while theoretically RFF could work and be equitable, it would take quite a bit of work to both create and annually to maintain.  Weights do have to be recalculated every 5 years.  And do that in an accurate and apolitical fashion, researchers should be contracted and their updated weights applied, without approval of or discussion in the general assembly.  Professor Kolbe testified that you cannot simply apply an inflationary factor…  the drastic fluctuations in inflation we are witnessing today should have taught you to stay away from such a simplistic adjustment… talk about throwing greater volatility into a system that needs stability.  But stability and true equity, which are both created as part of updating the weights, are clearly not the primary goals of W&M’s version of S.287.

While I appreciate your offer to speak or meet, I would prefer you use that time to bring in the list of witnesses you heard from during the Task Force process.  There’s a reason that you heard from so many of us with boots on the ground and asked you to do what is right for our students today and into the future.  The choice to live and breathe based on the testimony of less than a handful of witnesses while ignoring all the others, is going to be why your very own constituents suffer a $0.35 tax increase instead of having the additional taxing capacity WSESD administrators and Board are telling you they so desperately need.

Thank you for your time and consideration for this important matter.


“To those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, Inc.
Marc Bernard Schauber, Executive Director
A Vermont Non-Profit Corporation