Public Assets Institute > Press > What Others are Saying > Back to the chalk board for Douglas

Back to the chalk board for Douglas

Editorial, Times Argus

January 18, 2009

A contradiction lies at the heart of the plan of Gov. James Douglas to impose state controls on local education spending. An understanding of that contradiction unmasks the true nature of Douglas’s deceptive attack on public education in Vermont.

Douglas argues that education spending is spiraling out of control in Vermont. He produces numbers showing large percentage increases in education spending, noting that these increases are taking place even as the overall student body has begun to shrink. These rising costs, he concludes, are heaping an unbearable burden on Vermont’s property tax payers.

But what is the cause of these rising costs?

Certainly, schools face numerous extra burdens that they did not face in past years, including rising health care and energy costs and greater demands for special education services. Educators say they are seeing an increasing number of students with special needs, including autism and a variety of other learning disabilities. Serving these children is becoming increasingly expensive, but serving them is a mission that no one proposes to abandon.

Douglas adds another cause to the list of causes for the rising costs. He says the present education funding system established through Acts 60 and 68 makes it too easy for taxpayers to increase their budgets. Because the system equalizes education costs among school districts, taxpayers don’t face the inordinate cost burdens that they faced in previous decades.

That is the contradiction. Douglas is saying that property taxes are too high and that they are not high enough. He proposes to solve the problem by driving them even higher, to make property taxes hurt so badly that voters will be forced to hold school spending down.

He would drive property taxes higher by robbing the Education Fund of about $63 million. He does not call it robbing. In his role as governor, he is trying to balance the General Fund by diverting money now going to the Education Fund back to the General Fund. With less money in the Education Fund, property tax payers will have to make up the difference.

State government has been undermined by plummeting revenues from the broad-based taxes on which it depends. The income and sales taxes are volatile sources of revenue, responding to the ups and downs of the economy, and now the economy is down.

One of the advantages enjoyed by schools is that they depend largely on property taxes, which are less volatile. Property tax payers have to pay their bills even through the fluctuations in the economy. Fortunately, the income-sensitivity provisions of the bill provide a degree of protection if their incomes fall.

Douglas is following a demagogic path blazed by other Republicans in previous eras, using education as a whipping boy in hard times, imposing corrosive controls on education spending that ultimately undermine our schools.

It is what happened when a property tax cap in California transformed one of the nation’s best school systems into one of the worst.

It is ironic that Douglas is resorting to this tactic now, at a time when the nation is coming to realize that the American people suffer when the government retreats from its public responsibilities. The incoming Obama administration plans to make up for years of neglect in health care, infrastructure, education and other areas. Douglas is proposing changes that would undermine local control of schools, hinder improvements in education and undermine the equity so dearly achieved through the passage of Acts 60 and 68.

The Democrats must not allow Douglas to frighten them into ill-considered legislation designed to protect them from the charge that they are not doing enough to curb property taxes. It is Douglas who proposes to drive up property taxes and destroy equity among schools. Acts 60 and 68 may well require some modification to make it work more effectively, but Democrats ought to be willing to stand up and defend the bill that was one of their proudest achievements.

Douglas deploys a red herring when he says the bill is too complicated. Its principle is simple: A penny raised on the tax rate raises the same amount of money per-pupil in all of Vermont’s towns. That is equity. Douglas has proposed changes that would reconstitute the advantages once enjoyed by Stowe, Killington and other property-rich towns.

It is easier to pay for education now than it used to be. That was the point of the reforms that took place in recent years. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. At the same time, local school boards, which still have responsibility for crafting their own budgets, are now chopping their budgets as they respond to the poor economy.

The Legislature needs to stand up Douglas’s demagoguery about education. Education is our future, and our present.

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