When Montpelier Can't Get the Math Right
By Martha Allen
(This op-ed by our president was distributed to the news media on January 18)
It will come as no surprise that I have long opposed caps on what local communities can spend on their children’s education. Our long history of local voters, taxpayers, parents and educators coming together to determine how much to invest in their local schools has served generations of Vermonters well, giving us a public school system that is rivaled by few in the country.
Montpelier has tried – and largely stumbled – to “do something” about schools because of the notion that the public is telling them to do something (despite a long record of more than 90 percent passage of local school budgets). Last year, that something was Act 46, the school district consolidation law. To make districts want to merge, politicians claimed that the act would lead to more opportunities for more children. But another part of the law is doing just the opposite: The two-year allowable growth percentages are already causing more than 125 districts to reduce educational opportunities for students as they struggle to fit under this arbitrary spending cap.
And the kicker? Montpelier can’t even get the math right. Last week, we learned that there were mistakes in calculating the caps, meaning that most school districts were given the wrong spending limits. To some folks in Montpelier, this is nothing more than a dispute about numbers.
But to me, and my fellow 12,000 public school educators, this is a fundamentally dangerous path for our state’s children. Vermont-NEA is hardly alone in our opposition to arbitrary caps: the state’s school boards, superintendents and principals also understand that caps, in any form, are bad public policy because they always lead to shortchanging our kids.
In a list of proposed cuts recently compiled by the Vermont Principals’ Association, the breadth and depth of lost opportunities is stunning:
- In Ferrisburgh, band will be eliminated and technology programs for students are on the chopping block.
- At Vergennes Union High School, crossing guards, field trips, soccer, basketball and student enrichment programs are threatened.
- In Ludlow, the theater and cross country programs will be slashed.
- In Mill River, the cuts will affect math, social studies, English and science (at a time when the governor and others are claiming we need to double-down on math and science).
- In other districts around the state, boards are proposing the elimination of French, arts, music, remedial math, guidance counseling services and many other programs that benefit Vermont’s students.
We testified against the spending caps (as did hundreds of educators in emails and phone calls to their legislators) for this very reason. The quality of what we can offer Vermont’s children is one of the reasons why the quality of life in our state is ranked among the best in the country. So why on earth would Montpelier actively work to decrease opportunity for Vermont’s children by weakening our schools?
Obviously, I can’t answer that question. I’ve worked my entire professional life in Vermont public schools, and I can tell you that every single educator in Vermont puts students first.
These caps should never have been signed into law, as they are having the exact effect we warned about last year when we testified against them. Even before the cap miscalculations, these caps were a bad idea. They are even more of a bad idea now.
The only math that adds up is to repeal the caps. Let those closest to our children – local school boards, parents, taxpayers, and educators – do what they’ve done for generations when it comes to making decisions about their schools.
It’s time for Montpelier to admit its mistake. For our children’s sake, let’s follow the lead of Gov. Peter Shumlin, the American Civil Liberties Union, the state Senate and many others and vote to repeal the caps now, before even more harm is done to Vermont’s future.
Martha Allen, a K-12 librarian from Canaan, is president of Vermont-NEA, the statewide educators union.