Every election cycle, Vermont-NEA compiles a list of issues that are important to students, schools, and our members. The issues presented here were also put to the candidates, who told us their opinions in our candidates' questionnaire. To see how individual candidates responded simply visit the statewide, Senate, and House candidates' listings.
School Finance: Eliminate the Property Tax, Fair Taxes for VT Kids
Together with our communities, Vermont-NEA members are leading the charge in making our already great public schools even better, equipping our students with the tools they need to live happy, productive and fulfilling lives, no matter what path they choose to pursue. The state's constitutional obligation is to ensure access to a substantially equal amount of funding for each student, regardless of community. A related purpose of the original Act 60 was to enable low wealth communities to level up. It was a striking success, but that leveling up fed a public misperception that, coupled with our state's decline in school-aged children, we are spending "too much" on education. The state is paying no more on schoolchildren now as a percentage of the state’s economy than it has for decades dating back to well before the enactment of Act 60. Moreover, we know that two-thirds of Vermont homeowners pay their education property taxes based upon their income and their family’s ability to pay, but the wealthiest one-third of Vermonters do not. We believe the next step for Vermont schools is to ensure all residential homeowners pay their fair share and support all children’s education based upon their ability to pay – this includes the wealthiest. By eliminating the residential homestead property tax and moving it to an income tax for all Vermonters, and not just for lower and middle income as we do now, we can ensure that everyone pays their fair share. Vermont-NEA believes we should eliminate the education property tax for residential homesteads to move it to an income tax for all, so that all Vermonters – including the wealthiest – pay their fair share for our children’s public education.
Co-location of Services: Meeting the Needs of All Children
Vermont’s student population is changing. More and more children, especially in the early grades, are coming to school unprepared to learn because of adverse childhood experiences. These experiences can be related to physical and emotional trauma, the impacts of poverty and related economic uncertainties, or caretakers dealing with drug addiction. Whatever the cause, very young children are bringing those experiences – sometimes traumatic – with them to school. This affects not only their individual ability to learn but also that of their peers to learn and their teachers to teach. In order to meet the needs of not only all children, but that of struggling families, there should be efforts to expand essential social services to children and families in a school-based setting. Schools are already the center of many Vermont communities and it is logical to provide other essential services to students and families in this setting. This could include access to mental health services, dental care, health care and other state social services. By helping families struggling with poverty (including homelessness, food insecurity and lack of transportation), mental health services, health care, and other social supports, we can ensure both that all students are ready to learn when they come to school, AND that their families are positioned to succeed. Some schools in Vermont have already begun this work. Vermont-NEA believes at a time when young students are coming to school unable to learn due to complex family circumstances, we should move toward the co-location of essential support services for all students and families inside our community schools.
Student and Staff Safety – Support for Training
With the changing student population, there are more students who exhibit challenging and at times violent behavior toward themselves, fellow students and school staff. The students exhibiting these behaviors are often very young – including some in kindergarten and the early grades – and are coming to school from home circumstances marked by complex challenges related to poverty, drug addiction and other traumas. These adverse childhood experiences can result in dangerous and violent situations that make learning conditions for fellow students and working conditions for teachers and school support staff challenging and at times unsafe. Students exhibiting these behaviors need supports, and school staff and leaders are working to provide them; however, more training and capacity are needed to meet these safety and learning challenges. Vermont-NEA believes the state of Vermont should invest in providing training to all school personnel on how to deal with these challenging student behaviors while also ensuring staff the time and capacity to properly implement these strategies.
Paraeducators – Essential to Student Success
Providing equal educational opportunities to all Vermont students is not only essential, it is constitutionally required. Students come to school with varying needs that must be met to help them learn and be successful. Vermont teachers go far beyond teaching our students reading, writing and arithmetic, but include critical thinking, artistic expression and essential social skills often tailored to the individual student’s ability and interests. What is often not acknowledged is that paraeducators are a critical component of making Vermont schools and our students thrive and learn. Paraeducators provide critical one-on-one support to students, while also supporting teachers' ability to deliver detailed direct instruction to a diverse spectrum of students. Whether it is in special education, general education or other school support functions, paraeducators are essential to ensure our schools meet all students’ needs. Vermont-NEA believes that any decisions about the use of paraeducators and other support staff in Vermont schools should be made at the local level, where school leaders, school boards, and teachers know best what essential education supports are needed to ensure all students succeed.
Expanding Pre-K: Public Investment in our Future
In the 1980’s, Vermont was a leader in requiring all school districts to offer kindergarten to our state’s youngest children. Over the past several decades, research has proven that early learning is essential to child brain development and the earlier that children gain access to these high-quality educational opportunities the better prepared they are to learn as they grow and develop. Recognizing the importance of prekindergarten education (pre-K), the Legislature in 2014 passed Act 166, which provides families up to 10 hours of public money, through a voucher, to use toward qualified Pre-K programs. While an important step in acknowledging the needs of our youngest children, Act 166’s funding mechanism – vouchers – has, perversely, made it harder for our state’s most vulnerable children: those in poverty and with special needs. Since Act 166 only provides funding for 10 hours, families unable to pay for the additional portion of the privately provided child care can’t access this public benefit. We already know that children who come from families on the margins are at a disadvantage when they enter public schools. Additionally, Act 166 incorrectly presumes that vouchers for privately provided high quality pre-K ensure its availability, and that just is not so. As the state looks appropriately to expand public Pre-K, it is essential that policy decisions don't disadvantage children with special needs or those from poorer families. Vermont’s local public schools meet the needs of all students and families, while ensuring high-quality education is provided equitably across the state. Many public schools already provide public Pre-K for all children in their community, and all others should follow their lead. Vermont-NEA believes that high quality universal Pre-K is essential to the development of our children, especially those in less advantaged households, and that any additional state investment in Pre-K should ensure equity for all children by having local public school districts provide this early education directly.
Controlling health care costs for ALL – A path forward
Vermont-NEA has been and remains a leading advocate of health care reform, including Medicare for All, while supporting incremental reforms along the way. Affordable health care is still out of reach for many Vermonters and only getting more expensive. The health insurance that school employees receive has been a major subject of debate in Montpelier for the past two years. While this debate was happening, educators and their families, who make up the largest private health insurance pool in the state with nearly 40,000 lives, moved to high deductible plans. This transition has been problematic to say the least. What both the debate in Montpelier and the experiences of educators moving to these new plans has reinforced is that we must do something about the cost of health care for all Vermonters. Healthcare costs are growing faster than the rest of the economy and eating up more and more costs for both workers and employers. For example, education spending as a percentage of Vermont state GDP has remained steady at approximately 5% for over twenty years, while health care costs have grown from 10% to nearly 20% during the same period. Whether it is the cost of public education, running a small business or state government, health care costs are having a significant negative impact on our economy. Though the pressures are great to do something quickly, we must not fall into the trap of cost shifting who pays and put more economic stress on working people. Instead, we need to look to ways to bring down health care costs for everyone. Vermont-NEA believes the state should implement innovative policies that begin to control the soaring health care costs and stop the move towards putting more cost on working Vermonters.
Right to Strike
Vermont teachers and school support staff have had the right to collectively bargain for 50 years. Vermont’s average teacher pay is in the middle of the pack nationally and $2,000 below the national average. In the 1980’s, Vermont’s teachers were the lowest paid in the nation. As a result of collective bargaining Vermont educators are now paid a decent wage, a key reason why our school system is among the top 5 in the country. One part of collective bargaining for teachers and school support staff is that if at the end of a long process an agreement cannot be reached, educators may choose to withhold their labor by striking and school boards may choose to impose working conditions on employees. Both of these options are used as a last resort and are decisions not made lightly by union members or school boards. In fact, over the past 50 years of educator collective bargain there have been over 5,000 contracts negotiated and fewer than 30 strikes or impositions, ever. While strikes are exceedingly rare, Vermont-NEA believes that the right to strike for school employees is fundamental and has been and will remain a last, but sometimes necessary, resort to reach a fair contract settlement.
In 2010 and 2014, Vermont-NEA reached historic agreements with the State protecting the fiscal security of the State Teachers' Retirement System, saving taxpayers more than $1 billion over the course of the next several decades (Vermont-NEA and the State reached quieter agreements protecting the Municipal Employees' Retirement System.) Vermont's teachers are paying more and working longer for their retirement benefits. During the prior two decades, the State annually and routinely underfunded the Teachers' Retirement System by millions, sometimes tens of millions, of dollars. The State has met its full funding commitment to this system for each of the past 11 years. Vermont-NEA believes the State must continue to meet its annual funding commitment to the State Teachers' Retirement System. Moreover, Vermont-NEA believes, as was the case this year, any budget surplus monies should be earmarked to make-up for the state’s past underfunding of the State Teachers’ Retirement System in order to reduce the interest costs paid by the state, thereby saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Making Vermont attractive to workers: "Good cause," not "at will"
Vermont is a wonderful place to live and raise a family. It should be an equally wonderful place to work. For many Vermonters, it is: they enjoy protections from many forms of arbitrary or discriminatory treatment by employers and, if accused of some form of misconduct or incompetence, they have a way to present their perspective and have a neutral decision-maker decide who is right. Non-unionized employees, however, do not, beyond prohibited statutory forms of discrimination, have any state-protected job security at all. Their employer may treat them as "at will" employees, which means an employee may be terminated, at any time, for any reason not prohibited by law, or for no reason at all. "At will" employment makes job-taking risky and job retention fortuitous. It makes employees insecure because their employment is not protected. Vermont needs to attract more people of working and family-rearing age. Doing so is an ongoing state imperative. Providing job security that distinguishes Vermont from other states will make Vermont comparatively more attractive to employees. Vermont-NEA believes the state should enact legislation that enables employers to fire employees, but only if they have a good faith reason related to the employer's business and not trivial, arbitrary, or capricious reasons.