Brigham Decision: Shared responsibility for funding education

This is a comment by Jack Hoffman, senior analyst Institute of Public Values, a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Montpellier. He is a resident of Marshfield, currently living in France.

Twenty-five years ago, the Vermont Supreme Court declared the state’s education funding system unconstitutional.

More than a third of the state’s residents are too young to remember what happened then. And more than half of Vermont residents, now more than 25, have moved here from somewhere else.

It is safe to say that for many Vermont residents, the Foundation’s old plan and the decree that stopped it are distant or non-existent memories.

It is necessary to make a brief retrospective.

Although we did not use this term, funding for education at the time was “spotted”. Each city had its own property tax base, and the taxes received went to the education of only schoolchildren of this city.

Some cities had a lot of valuable property – businesses, factories, second homes – and they could bring in a lot of money with pretty low tax rates. Other cities struggled. They did not have a tax base, and their residents did not have enough income to afford high tax rates.

We then had state aid for education for cities that needed help. The idea was that for a certain, not too heavy tax rate (Foundation Rate), cities should receive a base amount of funding for each student (Foundation Amount).

In cities where there is not a large amount of valuable property, state aid compensates for the difference so that the principal amount of fund funding will be available to each student if the city charges fund rates.

It was a shockingly short-sighted system of funding, but one that exists today in most other states. In such systems, communities behave as if they are not interested in how well children are learning outside the city. Yes, the state together spends small money on state aid to poorer areas. But such funding policies are not based on a sense of shared responsibility or the notion that any educational resources should be available to teach all children.

It was this inability to share resources, the inability to provide all children with equal opportunities for education, that led to the Vermont Court of Justice abolishing the funding system on 5 February 1997.

Explaining why we should all take responsibility for educating all children, Judges Vermont referred to Brown v. Board of Education, a 1954 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregation of schools by race is unconstitutional:

«[E]education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. … This is required in the performance of our most basic public duties. … This is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the main tool for awakening the child to cultural values, preparing him for the next professional training and helping him to adapt properly to the environment. Nowadays, it is doubtful that a child can be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity to get an education. Such an opportunity, if the state has undertaken to give it, is a right that should be available to all on equal terms. “

In resolving the case of Amanda Brigham et al. v. Vermont, the state Supreme Court did not develop a new funding system. He left the job to the legislature, culminating in the enactment of Act 60 five months later. But the court effectively stopped the system of blocked funding, which allowed the richest communities to keep all taxes on education.

The court also recognized the importance of maintaining largely local control. It said that equal educational opportunities do not necessarily require exactly equal expenditures per capita, either [did] it definitely forbids cities and towns to spend more on education if they want to. ”

This part of the decision is relevant to today’s discussion on how best to provide additional resources to children from poor non-English-speaking families and children attending small rural schools.

But what was unacceptable, the court said, is “a system in which the possibility of getting an education necessarily depends on the well-being of the district. It is impossible to achieve equal educational opportunities if rich school districts can tax low and poor districts need high taxes to reach even the lowest standards. ”

The strongest legacy of Brigham’s decision is a policy of funding education based on shared responsibility, the idea that we all have a responsibility to ensure that all children receive an education that will enable them to make their way in the world. This principle is relevant today when the legislature evaluates the improvement of the funding system. What changes best meet the needs of all schoolchildren in the state?

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