For the past two weeks, the House Committee on Ways and Means has been chewing over a meaty question: Should state lawmakers attempt to amend Vermont’s school funding formula, or should they create a whole new one?
On Thursday morning, the committee opted for the former, voting unanimously to approve a version of p.287 that would update — not replace — the formula.
“I feel really proud of the work that we’ve done and really good about the direction that we’re headed,” Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the committee’s chair, said Thursday.
The bill aims to address a question that lawmakers have spent years talking about: How can Vermont make sure its school districts have access to the money they need to educate all of their students?
That problem came into focus in 2020, when a landmark study by researchers at the University of Vermont and Rutgers University found that the state’s funding formula is essentially unjust.
The current system, researchers found, shortchanges students who cost more to educate: children who live in rural areas, are low-income or are learning English, for example.
For the past two weeks, members of the House Committee have been considering two different versions of the same bill to address that problem.
One version — passed by the Senate a month earlier — would essentially update the existing system by creating new values for the formula’s “pupil weights,” a mathematical tool intended to direct money towards the students who need it most.
The other version would create a whole new funding system from scratch. Instead of tweaking the formula, that proposal would simply send districts direct payments for every student who fits into one of those costly-to-educate categories.
Last week, the House Committee appeared to be leaning towards the former proposal.
But amid a lobbying offensive by the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, an organization representing 27 Vermont school districts that has spent months advocating for updating the weights, the committee seemed to change tack.
Last week, the coalition held a press conference on the steps of the Statehouse and released a statement signed by nearly a dozen lawmakers in favor of the weighting model.
On Thursday, the House committee voted 11-0 in favor of that system.
“We were walking down this one route (and) really realized that it was too much change for the field right now,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, the committee’s vice chair. “We are doing all of this work in the middle of the pandemic, where teachers and schools and school boards and administrators are doing their very, very, very best right now.”
The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee. If it’s approved by that committee — and then the full House — it would still have to be reconciled with the Senate version of the bill before reaching Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
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