Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community.
— Ch. 1, Article 7, VT Constitution
Beyond all the arguments about how Act 60 will be implemented, there is a fundamental question: Do we as a people here in Vermont believe our children, all our children, no matter where they come from or how rich or poor they are, deserve an equal opportunity for an education? Our reputation as a fair-minded state is at stake. And so is the future of our children.
— VT Poet David Budbill
Vermont’s push for equity in school funding has a long history. And along with the history is a lot of politics, as well as one of the most important Vermont Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century – the ruling in the case Brigham v. State of Vermont. Here are some key questions I raise in the first chapter of my book, with answers based on what I found out during my research.
How far back do school funding reform efforts go? What was the problem?
Disagreement over school funding is not a creation of the 1997 Brigham lawsuit. Vermont set ambitious education goals as early as 1777, in its first constitution. There was to be one (or several) schools in every town, a grammar school (what today we’d call a high school) in every county, and one university somewhere in the state. Local schools would be funded by revenue from “glebe” (publicly owned) land. The funding of grammar schools and a university wasn’t addressed. In 1786 the mandates for grammar schools and a university were dropped. But even the mandate for local “common” schools was hard to meet. Glebe land rentals and sales never produced the revenue hoped for, nor did fees charged to the parents of students. Aspirations were way ahead of resources.
In 1864 the Vermont legislature required that property taxes be levied on all property owners in a school district. But tax rates differed widely among towns, from 17 cents “on the dollar of the grand list” in one town to nearly eight times that – $1.30 – in another. In 1890, the legislature approved a statewide education property tax to equalize school resources across the state. A five-cent surcharge was levied by the state on all local property tax bills, with the funds redistributed to towns based on need. The tax remained in place for 40 years, when it was repealed (the flood of 1927 and then the Depression strapped the state’s tax-raising capacity). Gov. George Aiken in 1937 lamented that “we cannot afford to do as much for our schools as we would like to.”
Gov. Ernest Gibson Sr. in 1947 said that the greatest problem facing the state’s education system was “equalizing educational opportunity and distributing the costs as equally as possible among the towns and school districts of the State.” For the next 50 years, Vermont struggled with the problem that Gibson identified. The ferocity of school funding debates grew as political power shifted between Republicans and Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s and as the property tax gap between “poor” towns and “rich” towns widened. The filing of the Brigham lawsuit in 1995 was the result of those debates.
What was the key to getting school funding reform moving?
Like the ancient VW Beetle that Woody Allen cranked to life in the 1973 movie Sleeper, Vermont’s constitution was called on to provide the necessary judicial energy for protection of individual rights. The language in the handwritten eighteenth-century document became a time-capsule gift to modern Vermonters looking address inequities. The Brigham case on school funding was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. The litigation grew out of frustration that the legislature was unable to fix the state’s deficient school funding mechanism. The “Foundation Formula” then in place was not providing all schools with the financial support they needed. The basic problems were overreliance on local property taxes and the state’s reluctance to make more equitable the access to the funds that towns needed to operate their schools.
What did the Brigham decision say?
The court accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that the provision of public education was a state responsibility and that the state constitution’s common benefits clause required that it be provided on an equal basis. The opinion held that the education funding system then in place “deprives children of an equal educational opportunity in violation of the Vermont Constitution.” The justices acknowledged the tricky relationship between financial inputs and academic outcomes, but they said that “there is no reasonable doubt that substantial funding differences significantly affect opportunities to learn.” They wanted to be clear: “The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child’s residence. It requires no particular constitutional expertise to recognize the capriciousness of such a system.”
What did Act 60 do?
Act 60, passed in 1997 in response to the court’s ruling in the Brigham case, created a unified statewide tax base for raising education funds: A penny on the tax rate in one town would raise the same amount of money for school expenses as a penny on the tax rate in any other town. School budgets would still be voted on locally, and towns would continue to make their own decisions about how much to spend on their schools. Assessments of property values were made consistent across the state. Most school tax bills would be adjusted through “prebates” according to homeowners’ incomes (a last-minute compromise because the governor and the Senate opposed the House’s plan for a local school income tax). Broad school quality standards were drawn up, including annual local development of action plans charting improvement of a town’s school.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the reformed finance system was an important shift in the way that Vermonters were asked to think about children’s education. They were asked to extend their vision for kids’ schooling beyond their individual towns to the entire state. They were asked to take on a sense of collective responsibility to guarantee equal access for all children to the fundamental right of public education.
The funding equity brought about by the Brigham decision — far-reaching as it was — has increasingly been viewed as not sufficient in making education opportunities for children fully equal. That belief is based on differences in the range of courses offered at small schools vs. large schools and on test results showing children from lower-income families consistently scoring below children from middle- and upper-income families. Financial equity as an input, in other words, hasn’t always translated into equity of school curricula or equity of student performance as outputs.
This raises the question, What exactly is fairness when it comes to education? Is equal access to school funds a worthy goal in and of itself? Or must it be considered one step on a path toward a broader goal of ensuring all children have an equal chance to succeed in life through equal opportunities provided by public education? If the latter is the case, what elements must be present for such success to be available to all children? The inequality of circumstance (such as family wages, housing, or health care) that has become a central theme in American political debates is present in the nation’s school systems as well, including Vermont’s. Education researchers believe that many factors leading to a child’s success in school lie outside of a school’s control – but there’s still an important roll for schools to play.