January 23, 2015 Education Legislative Report
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January 23, 2015 – Issue #3
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Table of Contents:

  1. Governor Says “Status Quo is Not an Option”
  2. Committees Delve into Education Funding and Governance System
  3. Agency of Education Rebuts Penn State Study on Consolidation
  4. Proposals to Address Education Funding Put on the Table
  5. Committees Grapple with Health Care “Cadillac Tax”
  6. Two Child Welfare Bills Begin to Take Shape
  7. Education-Related Bills

Governor Says “Status Quo is Not an Option”

Last Thursday in his budget address, Governor Shumlin called on the General Assembly to “start now” to address the significant challenges facing Vermont’s public education system.  Citing voters’ frustration with lack of action on rising costs and persistent inequity, Shumlin said, “Let there be no doubt that Vermonters want action and real change.” 

The Governor pointed to “micro” class sizes, the lowest student to staff ratio in the country, and a “complex and archaic governance structure that has superintendents and principals voting with their feet” as some of the root causes for rising costs and persistent inequity.  He said the time has come for Vermonters to ask themselves, “Are we spending money wisely, targeting our limited dollars where they will make the biggest difference for our children?”  
The Governor laid out a series of proposals designed to achieve savings and greater equity.  They include:
  • Requiring the Agency of Education to provide more data to school districts to help answer questions about rising spending
  • Having a moratorium on new mandates that add costs to districts
  • Phasing out or eliminating “contradictory incentives built into the funding formula like the small schools grant and the phantom student provision”
  • Targeting construction aid for districts that are “actively trying to right-size through a merger”
  • Prohibiting teacher strikes and board-imposed contracts
  • Giving enhanced redistricting authority to the State Board of Education when schools are “orphaned and need to be part of a bigger union”
  • Making decisions such as principal hiring, health care contracting and other significant spending take place at the supervisory union level, and empowering principals to hire all staff in their schools
  • Instituting Education Quality Review processes, including site visits by evaluation teams; districts will have time to make progress but if they do not make improvements in their fiscal or educational results, the state would adjust the funding formula to ensure that other taxpayers do not support continued bad choices, or, when necessary, to force the closure of schools
The Governor acknowledged that his proposals would not be embraced by everyone, but he called on legislators to consider them with an open mind, “realizing that even more drastic solutions may be demanded by Vermonters if we fail to act.”

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Committees Delve into Education Funding and Governance System

In both the Senate and the House education committees, the focus so far has been bringing legislators up to speed on our complex education funding formula and governance structures.  Legislative Counsel Donna Russo-Savage spent several hours with the committees reviewing the thirteen different governance models currently in place around the state, as well as the statutes governing tuition payment to public and independent schools at the elementary and high school levels.

In the House Education Committee, small schools grants and the ADM hold harmless provision have received the most scrutiny to date. From remarks by Brad James of the AOE and others, the small schools grants and ADM hold harmless provisions were characterized as not achieving the original purpose, as a possible disincentive for responsible budgeting, and possibly not a responsible use of funds under the current system.

In the Senate Committee on Education this week the focus remained on defining the problem that the legislature should be addressing this session. The committee expressed interest in knowing what about the current education funding structure works, as much as what does not work.  That committee is generally using the Speaker's Working Group proposals as a starting place for its inquiries.

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Agency of Education Rebuts Penn State Study on Consolidation

Earlier this month, two doctoral students in Educational Leadership at Penn State, Ian Burfoot-Rochford and Daniella Hall, released a policy brief questioning whether district consolidation would produce beneficial financial or educational outcomes for Vermont. The brief, titled, "Vermont Educational Reform: A Balanced Approach to Equity and Funding" was presented to the House Education Committee this week with 40 people in the room. The authors began by saying they and their study were not commissioned or sponsored by any particular interest. Their research was focused on two towns with small schools, Dover and Montgomery.  The authors conclude: “Over a century of research strongly suggests that consolidation will not resolve Vermont’s educational and economic challenges.”

The students suggested a variety of alternative proposals to school consolidation in their brief. One of the key proposals focused around the emphasis so far this session on reducing or eliminating the small schools grant. The authors urged the committee to expand the small schools grant, providing more and larger grants on a competitive basis. The other proposals focused on the benefits of community and school partnerships. Again and again the authors stressed the importance of schools to the economy and way of life of rural towns. The authors did not, however address finance or funding issues.
This week, the Agency of Education released a response to the policy brief, stating “We feel compelled to respond, because with respect to school and district size, this report seriously misrepresents much of the peer-reviewed research on which it claims to be based.”  Whereas the policy brief suggests that research shows no savings or educational benefits can be derived from consolidation, the AOE response states that the body of research cited “clearly suggests that there are substantial inefficiencies and costs with operating districts as small as many of the districts we have in Vermont.”

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Proposals to Address Education Funding Put on the Table

Several groups submitted ideas in response to the Speaker’s call for proposals to address education funding and quality last month.  This week, the House Education Committee heard from two of them – the Accountable Education Funding Plan proposal and the Campaign for Vermont plan.

The AEF plan would require the state to set a “reasonable cost standard for Vermont public education.”  Statewide education funding would not longer be a product of local budget votes but “limited based upon a determination of a reasonable cost to meet the state’s commitment to provide an excellent, substantially equal educational opportunity to all students.”  Spending above the reasonable cost standard would have to be raised locally with no extension of income sensitivity.  The proposal includes a “tiered luxury tax,” designed to establish downward pressure on higher spending in wealthier communities and raise additional funds for expanding opportunities statewide.

The Campaign for Vermont plan would eliminate supervisory unions and replace them with Regional Educational Administrative Districts (READs), organized around Vermont’s 17 regional tech center districts.  READs would be governed by a single board with proportional voting power based on town population. Local boards would remain intact and would have the responsibility for hiring local staff, managing the local school building and prioritizing budget assignments. READs would be responsible for budget assignment to school districts, teacher contract negotiations, transportation coordination, capital investment projects, purchasing of supplies, and coordination of AP and special education courses across the region.

Education taxes would no longer be statewide, but would be raised within the READ, which would be responsible for developing and administering the budgets within the region.  Local boards would have some input into the budget process, but the ultimate authority would rest with the READ board.

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Committees Grapple with Health Care “Cadillac Tax”

This fall, the Joint Fiscal Office released an analysis on the impact of the federal excise tax (commonly referred to as the “Cadillac Tax”) required by the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, Joyce Manchester from JFO testified in the House Education Committee about the impact of the tax on school districts and state employees.  Based on her testimony, it was clear to the committee that the state will need to plan, but the direction to take is unclear.   The state will begin bargaining within the next year for state employee contracts that will be in effect when the tax begins.  This fall, the value of the state employees’ plans will be high enough to be subject to the tax.

Regarding school employees’ VEHI plans, two of seven current individual and one current family plan may be subject to the tax starting as soon as January of 2018. ​As time goes by more plans will hit the threshold. For every $1,000 in plan value over the threshold, school districts will send close to $6 million to the federal government.  This is money that will create additional pressure on the property tax and divert resources away from the education of children.  House Health Care will hear testimony from JFO on Friday.

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Two Child Welfare Bills Begin to Take Shape

In response to several high-profile incidents over the past year leading the deaths of young children and youth, two separate bills have been introduced that would have an impact on school employees.

The first, S.9, seeks to improve Vermont’s system for protection children from abuse and neglect by making a number of changes to the system.  Of particular interest to school districts is the creation of a new crime – failure to protect a child.  S.9 would make it a crime for an individual who has the “custody, charge or care of a child” who causes or who “knows, or reasonably should have known, that the child is in danger of, and fails to act to prevent a child from, suffering” a number of harms, including physical injury, sexual assault and exposure to the unlawful possession, use, manufacture, cultivation, or sale of certain regulated drugs.

Hearings have already gotten underway on S.9.  For detailed coverage of the issues being raised at those hearings, read this VTDigger article.

The second bill was introduced in the House this week.  In response to the recent hazing incident in Milton, Milton representative Ron Hubert introduced H. 41, a bill that would require mandatory reporters to file a report with DCF and law enforcement within 24 hours if they have “cause to believe that any child may have been sexually abused or is at risk of being sexually abused by any person.”  Testimony is expected to begin on H.41 some time next week.

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Education-Related Bills

The following bills impacting education have been introduced so far this session:
H.18: Representatives Sweaney, Hubert and Martin: An Act relating to Public Records Act exemptions. 
H.28: Representatives Donahue and Lewis: An act relating to students’ right to opt out of computer usage. Would allow students the right of refusal to use a computer as part of instruction; directs school districts to adopt and implement district policies to effectuate the law.

H.32: Representatives Devereaux, Beck, Christie, Cupoli, Evans, Haas, Hebert, Higley, Hubert Juskiewicz, Lewis, Manwaring, Martin, Pearce and Shaw: An act relating to grade levels included in statewide public high school choice. Would extend Vermont’s current public high school choice to grades 7 and 8 in districts that operate a high school.

H.38​: Rep. Clarkson and Rep. Condon: An act relating to tuition payments to out-of-state schools.  The bill would prohibit tuition payments to out of state public or independent schools, making exceptions for special education and other circumstances.

H.41: Many sponsors: An act relating to requiring that mandated reporters report all allegations of child sexual abuse to the Department for Children and Families. The bill would require mandated reporters that have “cause” to believe a child has been sexually abused to make a report to DCF and law enforcement within 24 hours.

H.49: Representatives Keenan, Fagan and Feltus: An act relating to tuition payments and public high school choice. The bill would require that a sending school district pay tuition to a receiving district for each student who participates in statewide public high school choice.

S. 9: Sen. Ayer, Sen. Sears, Sen. Cummings, Sen. Flory, Sen. Kitchel, Sen. Mullin: S. 9 An act relating to improving Vermont's system for protecting children from abuse and neglect.  This bill would create a crime of “failure to protect a child” and applies it to anyone who has the custody, charge or care of a child.
S. 15: Senators Baruth, Sirotkin, Lyons, McCormack, Pollina, and Zuckerman: proposes to ensure that employees accrue a minimum number of hours of paid sick time annually and prohibits employers from penalizing employees who use their accrued sick time.
S. 18: Senators Ashe and Benning: establishes a private right of action for a person whose health care information is improperly disclosed by another person. 

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Published By: Vermont School Boards Association, Vermont Superintendents Association, Vermont Principals’ Association, Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, Vermont Association of School Business Officials and VSBIT 
Attn: Nicole Mace, 2 Prospect St., Montpelier, VT 05602 (802)-223-3580