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The party line

What he doesn't write is that $697 is about 8 percent of about $9,000, the average all-state cost per pupil, so that Vermont spends, on administration, in typical proportion to what all other states spend on administration. He doesn't write on what Vermont spends, in unique proportion, on small class size. That hasn't been a permitted subject in Montpelier, which explains why, when former Education Commissioner Richard Cate spoke of per-pupil costs, he carefully avoided the abnormally small average class size question-except on a couple of occasions when he actually defended the spending as productivity justified.

Of course, the prediction that test scores would go up as class sizes have gone down over 30 years, has failed to materialize but that's another statistical subject for another time.

What Commissioner Pelham could have written, had he dared to challenge Jim Douglas's party line, is a brief run-down on the fiscal impact of moving Vermont's P/T ratio from 11 to 16, the national average.

The Instructional Cost category of all school budgets was, as a national average, 61 percent of annual per-pupil cost in 2004-5, per the National Digest of Educational Statistics, and for Vermont it was 60 percent.

In theory, a class-size policy raising Vermont's average number from 11 to 16, or 50 percent, would subsume a parallel 50 percent decrease in instructional cost, from $752MM (2004-5) to $376MM, for a direct savings to taxpayers of $376MM. That's noticeably larger than the $25 to $35MM in the Pelham administration-savings proposal. An order of magnitude larger, in fact.

Let's assume, for reasons of bureaucratic inertia or union resistance, that Vermont public schools would evade fully subscribing to a five-student class-size-increase policy, or that they'll subscribe in a way designed not to capture the full theoretical savings.

Let's look, then, at the actual experience in Utah, which has the largest average-class-size in the nation, 22. It spends 51 percent of its annual $5,500 per-pupil cost in the Instructional category. If Vermont were to spend the 51% of its per-pupil total which is in the Instructional category and not 60 percent, the number would be $642MM and not $752MM, for a savings of $110MM, at least 3 times the Pelham proposal. To paraphrase U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen: A few tens of millions here and there and you're into real money.

Let's guess why fiscally-skilled Pelham would choose to critique administration; suggesting obliquely thereby, maybe the sidewalking of a few dozen superintendents but hiring at least that number of new assistants, while choosing not to propose something which might sidewalk several thousand instructors all of whom, as well as all of their extended families, vote. In such situations, the vote count does, indeed, trump the dollar count, which explains the party-line prohibition against a government official discussing any proposal which would displease the educator bloc.

Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.

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