Public Assets Institute > Policy Areas > Education > Brigham Decision: Shared responsibility for funding education

Brigham Decision: Shared responsibility for funding education

Twenty-five years ago the Vermont Supreme Court declared the state’s education funding system to be unconstitutional. More than a third of the state’s residents are too young to remember what was happening back then. And more than half of Vermonters now over 25 moved here from somewhere else. It’s safe to say, for many Vermonters, the old Foundation Plan and the ruling that ended it are distant or non-existent memories.

A brief retrospective is in order.

Although we didn’t use the term, education funding was “siloed” in those days. Each town had its own property-tax base, and the taxes generated were used to educate only the schoolchildren from that town. Some towns had lots of valuable property—businesses, factories, second homes—and they could generate plenty of money with fairly low tax rates. Other towns struggled. They didn’t have the tax base, and their residents didn’t have enough income to be able to afford high tax rates.

We had state aid to education then for towns that needed help. The idea was that for a certain, not-too-onerous tax rate (Foundation Rate), towns should get a basic amount of funding for each student (Foundation Amount). In towns without a lot of valuable property, state aid would make up the difference so that the basic Foundation Amount of funding would be available for each student when the town levied the Foundation Rate.

It was a shockingly myopic funding system, but one that is found in most other states today. In such systems, communities act as if they have no stake in how well children beyond the town line are educated. Yes, the state, collectively, kicks in a little money for state aid to the poorer districts. But such funding policies aren’t grounded with a sense of shared responsibility or the notion that whatever educational resources there are should be available for the education of all children.

It was this failure to share resources, the failure to provide all children with equal educational opportunity that led Vermont’s high court to strike down the funding system on Feb. 5, 1997. In explaining why we all must take responsibility for educating all children, the Vermont justices cited Brown vs Board of Education, the 1954 decision in which U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregating schools by race was unconstitutional:

“[E]ducation is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. . . . It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities . . . . It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

In deciding the case of Amanda Brigham, et al vs. State of Vermont, the Supreme Court didn’t devise a new funding system. It left that job to the Legislature, which culminated in the passage of Act 60 five months later. But the court effectively ended the system of siloed funding, which allowed the wealthiest communities to keep all of their education taxes to themselves.

The court also recognized the importance of maintaining a large measure of local control. It said that equal educational opportunity did “not necessarily require precisely equal per-capita expenditures, nor [did] it necessarily prohibit cities and towns from spending more on education if they choose.” That part of the decision is relevant to today’s discussion about how best to provide additional resources to children from families in poverty, non-native English speakers, and children who attend small, rural schools.

But what was not allowed, the court said, was “a system in which educational opportunity is necessarily a function of district wealth. Equal educational opportunity cannot be achieved when property-rich school districts may tax low and property-poor districts must tax high to achieve even minimum standards.”

The most enduring legacy of the Brigham decision is education funding policy based on shared responsibility, the idea that we all have an obligation to ensure that all children get an education that will allow them to make their way in the world. That principle is also relevant today as the Legislature assesses refinements to the funding system. What changes will best meet the needs of all schoolchildren in the state?


Posted by Jack Hoffman on February 11, 2022 at 8:59 am

2 Responses to “Brigham Decision: Shared responsibility for funding education”

  1. Sen. Dick McCormack, (Maj. Leader 97-00) says:

    The Brigham Decision articulated the constitutional basis of equity in educational opportunity. The decision recognized the role of tax equity in achieving educational equity. Legislators had struggled with this for decades but the Brigham Decision made equity a constitutional imperative, not to be taken lightly.

  2. Brian Machesney says:

    Education has become an increasingly life-long prospect. Thus, a key aspect of K-12 education in the internet age is to endow students with the ability to locate information, understand it and examine it critically. The internet divide threatens the ability of rural students to participate in this information economy. Just as rural electrification and telephone service exemplified the sense of shared responsibility discussed in this item, so too must we accept responsibility for the expansion of access to broadband internet connection. Despite the formation of Communication Union Districts, the most rural areas are poised once again to be the last to receive the benefits. Brigham may have changed much, but much remains to be done.