Vermont Can’t Afford to Shortchange Our Children
By Don Tinney
At a time when our state’s children need us more than ever, Gov. Phil Scott this week returned to his same, tired rhetoric about why we can’t give our public schools – and the people who learn and teach in them – the support they need.
With the release of the Tax Department’s annual projection of education property tax rates on Thursday, the governor pounced on the idea that Vermont’s local taxpayers and school boards need to impose radical cuts that, in the end, are harmful for our state’s children. Indeed, with his gloom-and-doom rhetoric, the governor is trying to scare taxpayers instead of offering solutions that will give our state’s children and our public schools the resources they need to address huge, longstanding issues.
Vermont is recovering from a global pandemic; dealing with the mental health crisis; struggling with an out-of-control drug addiction problem; facing the consequences of deferred school facility maintenance; and grappling with uncontrollable price increases from our for-profit healthcare system. The governor’s solution to addressing those challenges is the same as it’s always been during his nearly eight years in office: we must cut the resources available to our kids because Vermont can’t afford it.
But let me flip that notion on its head. Families with a child struggling with mental illness cannot afford to be without mental health services. Students traveling to school cannot afford to be without qualified school bus drivers who will get them to school safely. Our children and youth faced with colds and flu cannot afford to be without the primary health care provided by school nurses. Struggling readers cannot afford to be without the support and instruction provided by a qualified educator. And students cannot afford to learn in school buildings that are in dire need of repair.
Yes, education spending is increasing, and, yes, that might mean higher taxes. For years, however, we’ve learned that those tax increases fall harder on working Vermonters than they do on the state’s wealthiest. There are two reasons for this. The property tax, which is inherently regressive, costs a typical family more than it does the state’s wealthiest. And those same people have for years not been paying their fair share in income taxes. But while Gov. Scott wants to coddle the state’s rich at the expense of the state’s children, there is a way to ensure students and schools aren’t short-changed.
We’ve long advocated for eliminating the residential education property tax in favor of an education income tax. And we fully endorse efforts to raise taxes on households making more than $500,000 a year, a move that will generate almost $100 million annually.
Sadly, the governor has signaled that both of those options are unacceptable to him. He’d rather play the same, tired tune. How refreshing it would be if the governor would be looking at ways to unlock badly needed revenue from those Vermonters who can most afford it. Simply put, instead of complaining about the cost of doing right by our state’s students and public schools, the governor could be calling on the state’s wealthiest to pay their fair share so that all Vermonters can thrive.
Our public schools have enjoyed widespread support from local taxpayers year-after-year for centuries. Our public schools remain among the best in the nation and are treasured hubs of their communities. They are also critical in the maintenance of our democracy, and crucial in ensuring that our state’s children can grow up to be happy, healthy, and engaged adults.
Rather than be a true partner in making sure our children get the resources they need and deserve, Phil Scott wants to scare local taxpayers and school boards into doing less.
Doing less when our needs demand more makes no sense. While we know that the governor is unlikely to change his tune, we hope legislative leaders call his bluff and work this session on behalf of the state’s children.
We cannot afford to shortchange our future.
Don Tinney, a long-time English teacher at BFA-St. Albans, is the elected president of Vermont-NEA, the union of 13,000 educators who work every day on behalf of the state’s children.