Schools are doing more, and spending more

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By Jack Hoffman

Exhibit A among current critics of Vermont’s education funding system is some version of a chart showing annual education expenditures going up over time and school enrollment going down. Why are we spending more and more money to educate fewer and fewer kids?

The two-day education summit last week in Burlington went a long way in answering that question. The money coming out of Vermont’s Education Fund covers a lot more than education. It is also pays to help children overcome barriers to learning, including mental health problems, behavioral problems, physical health and nutrition problems, and specific learning disabilities. And many of these problems, as described by teachers and administrators alike, have their roots in poverty.

Over the years, Vermont has worked to coordinate social services and educational services. It’s commendable that the state has made an effort to address the variety of childhood needs in the location where children spend much of their waking hours: school. And the state deserves credit for identifying services provided by schools that qualify for matching funding through Medicaid and other federal programs.

But we need a more nuanced accounting that distinguishes education from human services before coming to the conclusion that Vermont spends too much on education. We know that for years schools have been asked or forced to provide services for students that go well beyond the traditional role of education. Policy makers and the public need a better understanding of those responsibilities and costs.

People who argue that Vermont spends too much on education often point to per pupil spending, which is higher here than in most other states — or all other states, depending on the source. Gov. Peter Shumlin said Vermont had the highest per pupil spending in the country when he addressed the education summit last week.

But we know Vermont’s spending includes education and human services. Do other states provide the same support services for children? If so, do they fund them through their education systems or might they come out of the state human services budgets or through county social services programs?

Beyond the state-to-state comparisons, understanding the difference between educational costs and human services costs is important to allocating funding. House Speaker Shap Smith, who was one of the sponsors of the education summit and spent two full days there, acknowledged in his closing remarks that schools have, indeed, become an arm of human services. But also said schools shouldn’t be responsible for delivering those additional services.

Schools, in fact, may be an ideal setting for delivering social services and even health care services. But Speaker Smith was correct in the sense that we shouldn’t be using the education funding system to pay for human services. Before the Legislature starts thinking about reforming education funding, it should identify the education services to be supported with property taxes and the human services that need to be supported with General Fund taxes, like personal income, corporate income, sales, and rooms and meals taxes.

Perhaps in the course of understanding exactly what we’re asking of our school system, we’ll discover that the real problem we face isn’t education funding, but the societal ills that flow from Vermont’s increasing income inequality and poverty.

Jack Hoffman is a policy analyst for Public Assets Institute (www.publicassets.org), a non-profit organization based in Montpelier.