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A bad week for education at the State House

The only good news for education in Montpelier this past week is that Gov. Jim Douglas proposal for scholarships for Vermonters attending post-secondary education in Vermont isnt dead yet. Gov. Douglas last year proposed Promise Scholarships for Vermont students who stay in Vermont for a few years after they attend college or technical training. Most people that I spoke with supported the scholarships as a way to make education and training after high school more affordable for Vermont students. The biggest problem with this proposal seems to be that it was Gov. Douglas proposal, not the proposal of the legislative majority. After a lot of wrangling last year, the Governor and the Legislature arrived at a compromise, to form a Next Generation Commission to study education and training needs. The Commission met during 2006, and recommended a combination of scholarships and workforce training. In the Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Adjustment Act, the Legislature included funds for workforce training, but no funds for the scholarships. Gov. Douglas vetoed the bill, as he had told legislative leaders he would. I voted to sustain the Governors veto because I agree that its essential to make college and training more affordable for Vermonts youths. The Governors veto was sustained by the House. I hope the Legislature will make these scholarships available soon, before its too late for this years high school seniors. Last week, the House passed a prekindergarten bill that will increase property taxes. The bill expands Education Fund payments for preschool for more children. Vermont has for years been offering preschool for children who are at risk because of poverty or other reasons such as a disability. Each year, more school districts have been offering preschool for children who are not at risk, and receiving reimbursement from the Education Fund, despite unclear statutory authority for the funding. The bill provides that 3 and 4 year olds attending qualified preschools will count as 46 percent of an equalized pupil, with the Education Fund reimbursing preschool for up to 50 percent of 3 and 4 year olds in Vermont who are not at risk. This means that Education Fund spending will increase to at least $25 million next year for preschools for 3 and 4 year olds who are not at risk. Without the preschool funding, the statewide property tax rate could be reduced by roughly 3 cents. It also means that some people who want their children to go to preschool will get the service for free from their local school, and some people probably will not be allowed to send their children to preschool at taxpayer expense. The research on preschool indicates that expensive, longterm intervention for children at risk results in improvement in student achievement. Theres no argument against continuing services for children who are at risk. For children who are not at risk, most research shows that children who dont attend preschool catch up with the children who did go to preschool by fourth grade. The State of Oklahoma adopted universal prekindergarten in 1998. Between 1992 and 2005, Oklahoma had the worst loss in the nation in fourth grade reading achievement according to National Assessment of Education Progress tests. I voted against the bill. I voted against taking more money from the Education Fund for expanded programs that have not shown lasting benefits for children, and against an arbitrary cap that permits half of children to go to preschool at taxpayer expense, while probably denying that service to other 3 and 4 year old children. The other education bill passed by the House last week, entitled an Act Relating to Education Quality and Cost Control, does little to reduce school spending. It tightens over 5 years the penalty for high levels of school spending, limits to $6,000 the amount that a taxpayer can receive in property tax adjustments, requires the state to pay all of the costs of special education for state-placed students (foster children, in most cases), requires schools to adopt a calendar mandated by the Department of Education and to negotiate employee contracts at the supervisory union level, calls on the Department of Education to provide technical assistance to school districts, and requires 9 reports and studies. It was estimated that the bill may save $9 million per year several years from now, out of roughly $1.8 billion in total annual school spending. Employee salaries and benefits make up roughly eighty percent of school costs in most districts. Employee costs for special education are a significant part of these costs. School boards need the states assistance in managing these cost drivers. I voted for amendments to assist in these areas, such as sharing best practices in delivering special education services, changing the current contract negotiation system that includes strikes and finality (only 9 states permit teachers to strike) to a negotiation system more like the one used for Vermont State employees, and giving financial incentives for schools that reduce spending. None of these amendments was adopted. I voted against the bill because we need to do something effective to reduce school spending and property taxes. Taxpayers need more than promises of possible future reductions. Unless there are very substantial changes in the next month, we can all look forward to a continuing upward spiral in our property tax bills. Please join us at Brueggers Bagels in the Shelburne Bay Shopping Plaza on Tuesdays during the legislative session from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. to discuss legislative issues. If you have questions or concerns, please call me at 985-2329 or email me at jerrecart@usa.net.

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