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Rural Vermont Studies Funding System, Finds Equity

Vermont, a primarily rural state, appears to have figured out what baffles many others: an equitable education funding system, according to a new report.

"An Evaluation of Vermont's Education Finance System," a draft report released in January and requested by the state's legislature, found there's virtually no relationship between wealth (as determined by property or income) and education spending levels.

That's a pretty significant finding, considering equitable funding systems seem to be the exception rather than the norm. We've reported on how rural schools nationwide are fighting state funding formulas that advocates say are designed to their disadvantage.

In Vermont, the system is a relatively new one. The state's Supreme Court ruled in 1997 in Brigham v. State of Vermont that the way it funded education was unconstitutional because it created unequal opportunities by tying local school funding to local property wealth.

The state passed new laws in 1997 and again in 2004, Act 60 and Act 68, respectively, to fund its schools in a way that no other state does. Here's how the state's report describes that system: "Local towns and districts annually determine the spending level for their schools, and the state—through a complex system of property and income taxes and other state sources of revenue—funds the schools in a manner designed to treat taxpayers choosing the same level of spending for the students in their schools equally regardless of their location across the state."

(If you want a more detailed explanation of what that means, the Rural School and Community Trust does a great job of explaining the details).

Still, the state's wealthier towns have been fighting this system for years, so lawmakers hired a well-known California school financing consulting firm, Lawrence O. Picus and Associates, to see whether the system was doing what it was supposed to do, according to the Rural Trust.

Their report acknowledged valid concerns raised in communities statewide, but said "none of those issues are so serious that the state needs to completely replace its approach to funding schools." Instead, the report said each concern should be considered carefully by lawmakers, who should consider modifications.

The report noted the state's scores rank in the top 10 nationally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and that its students have one of highest levels of per-pupil funding in the country and one of the lowest ratios of pupils to teachers.

The Burlington Free Press ran a story last month about the report that gives some in-state officials' reactions to the report.

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