Public Assets Institute > Blog > Task Force uncovered flaws with student-count weights

Task Force uncovered flaws with student-count weights

The Legislative Task Force looking at changes to the state’s school funding system deserves Vermonters’ thanks for work it did over the last six months. The committee, officially known by the unwieldy name “Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report,” released its report and recommendations last Friday. It’s not a quick read, but warrants our attention as the issue involves a big change to school funding and equitable education in the state.

Vermont has long used pupil weights as a mechanism to provide additional funding for certain students. By counting these students as fractionally more than one pupil, the funding system can deliver additional money to schools without increasing the school district’s tax rates.

The Pupil Weighting Factors Report was commissioned by the Legislature and delivered in late 2019, but languished for almost a year and a half as lawmakers and everyone else dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. The report concluded that Vermont’s existing weights were inadequate and recommended dramatic increases. For example, the report recommended that each student in poverty receive an added weight of 2.97, not the 0.25 weight we now use.

When the Task Force began its work last summer, some thought its only job was to recommend when the new weights should take effect. However, the co-chairs, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser and Sen. Ruth Hardy, and the other members of the committee took pains to understand the consultants’ study: how the computer model was built, what costs were factored into the weighting calculations, and how the new weights would affect funding for the students in need of additional resources.

What we learned thanks to the Task Force’s due diligence is that Vermont’s unique funding system isn’t well suited for pupil weighting. It turns out this has been the case all along, but no one really dug into how weighting affects the distribution of education funding in Vermont until the Task Force went to work.

Pupil weighting is a useful tool for calculating the cost of improving educational performance for students from different backgrounds. And the Task Force has recommended using weights calculated by the consultants to determine additional costs associated with poverty, middle and high school grades, school size, and geographic isolation.

However, weights are not as useful when it comes to distributing money to cover those costs—at least with Vermont’s funding system, which allows for a strong measure of local control. Some communities spend more per pupil than others for many different reasons and weighting would exaggerate those differences.  Instead, the Task Force has recommended a change in funding that would narrow disparities between higher-spending and lower-spending districts.

The Task Force made other changes to the original Pupil Weighting Factor Report. For example, it adopted a more comprehensive measure of poverty that would lead to more students being eligible for the poverty weighting and additional funding. However, expanding the universe of poverty students also contributed to a reduction in the size of the added weight applied to each poverty student—from 2.97 in the original study down to 1.03.

There has been a chorus of calls for the Task Force to just “pass the weights,” meaning the weights first proposed by the consultants nearly two years ago. Those original weights, however, were derived from fiscal year 2018 school funding data and were based on assumptions that no longer apply, like the metric for poverty. The Task Force has done some good work and laid out two new alternatives for moving ahead with providing the additional funding that many students need. The Legislature should focus its attention on these recommendations.

The Task Force was given a broader responsibility than simply adjusting the weights Vermont uses in its funding system. As it explained in its final report, the Task Force was charged with recommending a plan to “ensure that all public school students have equitable access to educational opportunities.” What it found after months of research, testimony, and debate was that “expanding the use of weights in our current tax equalization formula may not be the best method to accomplish these goals.”

Vermonters should be grateful that the Task Force had the courage to follow through on its responsibility in the face of often undeserved criticism.

Posted by Jack Hoffman on December 22, 2021 at 11:41 am

One Response to “Task Force uncovered flaws with student-count weights”

  1. John Cook says:

    Thanks for this very informative blog post Jack, Sarah, et al. Education effectiveness and education attainment are among Vermont’s most critical issues as it moves ahead into a very uncertain future. Equity in education access and funding are not easy to achieve, but they are necessary for Vermont to provide healthy livelihoods and enable its children to fulfill their potential. I am very glad Public Assets is focused on these issues and providing helpful analysis and observations. Keep up the good work, and may 2022 be a good year for us all! Peace,
    John Cook