School funding task force proposes new funding system for students learning English

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Representative Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, speaks at the Statehouse in Montpellier on January 7, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

A legislative task force has proposed overhauling the Vermont system to allocate money to schools for students learning English.

The proposals, which were released Friday by a task force examining the state’s K-12 funding system, would create a new grant funding system – often referred to as “categorical aid” – for districts in depending on the number of English students attending the school there. .

If implemented, these proposals would mark a significant departure from the current model for funding Vermont schools.

“We know English language learners need more resources,” said Representative Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, working group co-chair. “We know they need really specific resources. We know we are fortunate to have a rapidly diversifying state.

In the current state model, local school boards set budgets and send them to voters for approval, knowing that the state will foot the entire bill through its Education Fund.

The system is based on the premise that some students – especially English language learners, low-income students, and rural students – need more school resources to be successful. Thus, when the state counts the number of children attending school in a certain district, these pupils are assigned a greater weight.

Local property taxes are then calculated based on a district’s “equalized spending per student”. With more low-income, rural, or English-learning students in a district, the local school board can write a larger budget – without necessarily increasing the tax burden on residents.

But two years ago, a study commissioned by lawmakers found that the weights assigned to rural, low-income, or English-learning students failed to create equitable learning environments and “did not reflect the circumstances and circumstances. contemporary educational costs ”.

As a result of the study, lawmakers established a “Student Weighting Factors Report Implementation Task Force” to determine recommendations to level the playing field.

On Friday, that task force came up with a different model: a new grant program of nearly $ 11 million specifically for English-language learners, often referred to as ELL.

Under the proposed grant system, ELL students in Vermont school districts would no longer be given additional weight in the budgeting process. Instead, school districts would receive grants directly from the state.

Any district with at least one ELL student would automatically get a grant of $ 25,000 from the state education fund, as well as an additional $ 5,000 per ELL student in the district. The program would cost approximately $ 10.7 million.

The rationale behind this proposal, said Kornheiser, is to ensure that districts have “the minimum capacity to provide comprehensive English learning services and programs to their students.”

For many districts, she said, the additional fiscal capacity generated by having only a handful of ELL students doesn’t add up.

“On a per student basis, if a district only has, say, three English learners, they still won’t be able to reach a capacity tipping point with marginal costs,” she said.

But some school officials have cried foul. The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a team of more than 20 Vermont districts, criticized the task force’s proposal, arguing in a statement Monday that the plan would underfund poorer school districts.

“Proposals that do not address the weighting formula will not help Vermont’s most struggling school districts,” the coalition said.

Emily Hecker is the Director of Communications and Development for the Winooski School District, which is a member of the coalition. She estimated that the categorical aid program would leave her district – among the most diverse in the state – with $ 1 million less than it could have raised with an updated weighting system.

“Unfortunately, the current proposal reinforces inequalities in Vermont’s education funding system,” Hecker said in an email.

But Kornheiser said the task force’s calculations revealed that larger and more diverse districts such as Burlington and Winooski would have access to the same amount of money they would have under the weights recommended in the 2019 study.

The plan proposed on Friday is only a preliminary step. The task force has two months before its final report is delivered on December 15.

And the forum has yet to grapple with the thorny question of how to allocate funds to low-income and rural students. Kornheiser said the task force plans to change the weights for these categories of students while creating the Grants Program for English Language Learners.

The group also plans to draft a bill associated with the final report, Kornheiser said.

Stephanie Yu, a policy analyst at the Public Assets Institute, a Montpellier think tank that advocates for education finance reform, said it was still too early to assess the task force’s proposal.

But she said it was entirely possible that a combination of categorical aids and adjusted student weights would be the best plan.

“This is part of how all of these pieces fit together,” Yu said, noting that many ELL students are also low-income. “So watching just one slice of it is difficult.”

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