Education

Re-Energizing Vermont’s Public Education System

from Campaign for Vermont

As is our Vermont tradition, we must be innovative with our public education system in order to compete in a 21st century economy.

There is little doubt that Vermont’s K-12 public education system is under stress. Student population has decreased by nearly 20,000 over the past two decades, property taxes are steadily rising, and school districts are struggling to comply with a consolidation mandate intended to shed excess overhead costs.

Half of Vermont’s 250 school districts have fewer than 100 students, many of which are in rural areas of the state. Because Vermont’s property tax system is based on cost per student, slight changes in pupil count can have a dramatic effect on the tax rate in that community. This has created a scenario where rural areas – already seeing population declines – see dramatic increases in property tax rates. These population declines become cyclical as unstable tax rates further deters young families from moving into those communities. 

Traditional thinking has evaluated the population decline as something we must match our administrative structure to, essentially “right-sizing” our education system. In other words, we have excess administrative overhead and must reduce it in order to match our level of student enrollment. This approach led to Acts 153, 156, and 46 which have attempted to reduce the administrative overhead of our school systems. Acts 153 and 156 had scant participation from local school districts, (four school districts, Weston, Landgrove, Londonderry, and Peru merged into the Mountain Towns RED). Even Act 46, which is a “mandatory” consolidation effort, has prompted action in less than half of school districts so far.

Right-sizing our education system has proven difficult as it relies heavily on the actions of local communities. Perhaps we are thinking about it in the wrong way. Instead of looking at this challenge as excess overhead, maybe we should think about it as excess capacity. We have seen a student drop of 20% with no similar reduction in school staffing. Which means, theoretically, that we could serve 20,000 more students than we currently do.

Traditional methods of increasing student population include increasing overall population, which takes decades to change. In a flattening world economy we must think more broadly. Many countries around the globe are gaining wealth at a rate approaching that of the United States. This opens up a number of opportunities to look beyond not just the borders of our state, but also the borders of our country for a solution.

Over 80,000 students come into the United States every year from China alone. This is a ten-fold increase from 2008. A rising middle class coupled with explosive economic growth has put American educational opportunities within reach for middle-class Chinese families. Here in Vermont, many independent schools have far more applicants than they could possibly accept from Central Asia. This is nothing new for private schools around the country. The real innovation is that public schools are now beginning to accept international students in similar fashion. Some of these schools are even here in Vermont.

Vermont schools already rank well compared to other states and indeed other countries which would be a useful selling point in attracting international students. Excess capacity in Vermont’s rural schools could easily be met with the rapidly growing demand for access to American educational systems around the globe. Public education systems are just beginning to catch on to international education and Vermont can be on the leading edge of this wave. All of this comes at a time when our K-12 public education system is in dire need of innovation. This could be the spark needed to move us forward.

Budget pressures continue to increase, particularly on our smallest schools, while taxpayers are screaming for relief. Instead of making decisions about how to invest in our children’s future, they are being forced to make decisions about where to pull back. An infusion of international students would diversify our student populations, introduce new revenue, and create more educational opportunities for our Vermont students.

The infrastructure to implement such a plan is already in place; A number of non-profit organizations already recruit students internationally, and the F-01 Visa program is widely used to tuition students to the United States. Implementing a program like this at a statewide level could leverage recruiting and placement in a way that has not yet been done elsewhere. Filling just half of our excess capacity could bring $350 million into the state, rivaling the ski industry for direct economic impact.

Let’s make Vermont an education destination and revolutionize our Pre-K through 12 education system.

Download the full report.

Sincerely,

Benjamin Kinsley
Executive Director
Campaign for Vermont Prosperity

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