Monday, February 17, 1997

Opinion: Supreme Court rocks the schools

Published in the Mountainview

Last week the Vermont Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision striking down the property-tax-based method of funding public education in Vermont. Deemed unfair to poor towns, the Court said that the current system is based too much on the financial base in the community, rather than on the actual cost of giving each Vermont child a solid education.

The case, brought by the ACLU on behalf of a Whiting third-grader, has already had strong effects in Montpelier. The Statehouse was abuzz with discussion as the Vermont Assembly begins its second month of legislative session. Already on the slate for this session was property tax reform. The Court's decision has forced the issue, and has forced the reform to be even more sweeping than anyone was previously talking about.

The basic structure of a new school financing structure for the state is likely to be a single pool for statewide funding, with a dollar amount earmarked for each student. This will improve the funding levels for schools in poor communities; what remains to be seen is the impact on funding for schools in middle and upper-class towns. There has been some talk of prohibiting wealthier towns from spending more money on their schools, but that initiative is likely to fail. Local control of schools has become a national concern; preventing parents from materially influencing their children's education is a dangerous and potentially litigation-causing issue.

The major questions now are how this statewide pool will be funded and administered. Property tax is a deeply controversial issue in Vermont, where farms and condominiums are closely juxtaposed on similar plots of land. Some suggestions for an increased income tax to fund schools have also surfaced.

That suggestion is based on the idea that a family's tax burden should be proportional to their ability to pay it, rather than taxing a poor farmer on large tracts of land which yield little income. Income taxes would also place more directly the burden of school support on renters, who now currently cover their landlords' tax payments with their rent bills. This is a concern; should property taxes drop, will rents decrease statewide? It is not likely, though renters' other tax bills will increase.

Another potential method of funding schools is additional sales tax. This would leverage tourist dollars to directly benefit Vermont's children and future, in additional to being based on the ability of the taxpayer to pay; most essential items are not subject to sales tax,

We are likely to see this reform process move forward this legislative session, but there is no guarantee of a solution anytime soon. Other states have had similar court decisions come down in recent years; notably, New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled very similarly to the Vermont decision. That was eight years ago, and nothing substantial has changed about the way New Jersey funds education; solutions are bogged down in legislative subcommittees.

Vermont's Supreme Court justices have the option, should a solution be too long in coming or be constitutionally flawed in other ways, to take over the educational-funding system themselves and design a new, constitutionally-acceptable solution. This is not likely to happen soon, or at all, but it is a thinly veiled threat to Governor Dean and the state legislature. Vermont's leaders need to design a plan which is constitutionally acceptable, which funds education equally across Vermont, which does not severely curtail the influence parents or their financial resources can have on their children's education, and which is affordable for all Vermonters.

The Supreme Court has not said much to guide them, except that the current system is unacceptable. Vermont's constitution states that all Vermonters have a right to equal access to public education. The Court has said this translates easily into dollar figures per student. Schools doing more with less are likely to see increased funding, while schools doing less with more will be forced to be more efficient. We can only hope that schools which are spending large amounts of money per student, and which are seeing material results, will be permitted to pursue their excellence without fear of financial cuts.