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The real problem: We need more kids

Gov. Peter Shumlin pointed to enrollment recently as the education funding problem Vermont faces. “We’re spending too much money for the number of kids we have,” the governor said on Vermont Public Radio.

Policy makers in Montpelier have struggled for years with the decline in the state’s school-age population. But so far all of the solutions have focused on one side of the equation: spending. School consolidation, penalties for districts with above-average budget increases, and tweaking tax rates are all attempts to adjust funding to a shrinking number of children.

Instead of always looking to cut, what if we solved this problem by filling the empty desks?

Some people complain about the cost, but Vermont’s schools, by all measures, perform better than those in most other states. We should be marketing Vermont’s school system around the country—around the world even. We know we have lots of capacity. Before we start mothballing schools and perhaps losing them forever, what if we embarked on a five-year plan to bolster enrollment as part of a larger campaign to recruit young families to Vermont?

Governor Shumlin’s emphasis on early childhood and the current efforts to increase the availability of affordable, high-quality child care would fit nicely into such a campaign. Despite the increase in childhood poverty in recent years, Vermont has a strong record when it comes to fostering the wellbeing of children. This is a good state for young parents looking for a safe, healthy place bring up their kids. Vermont just needs to get the word out.

Green Mountain Care also should be part of the recruitment effort. If it succeeds, Vermont’s approach to reforming the health care system and providing universal care—not just mandating health insurance—will further enhance the state’s reputation as a good place to live.

Figuring out how to attract young families will take research, energy, and some public investment. Fifty years ago, Vermont billed itself as “The Beckoning Country” as part of a campaign to lure new residents, and now many of those transplants are retired or about to be.

Young adults are coming to Vermont—or back to the state in some cases. We need to understand what’s leading them here and build on the things that they find attractive. It will help fill our classrooms again and ensure the survival of the education system we’ve built up over the years. An influx of young families can also strengthen the state’s economy.

We don’t have to cut our way out of the problem of declining enrollment. There is a more forward-looking solution.

Posted by Sarah Lyons on April 2, 2014 at 9:35 am

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