Education Issues

Good news and bad news for Vt. poor

January 13, 2013; Peter Hirschfeld; Times Argus

“I’m not sure it has to be a choice between improving access to childcare and taking money from families that can just about least afford it,” Pearson says.

Pearson is already working with lawmakers on a counterproposal that would keep the $17 million appropriation — double what Vermont spends on childcare subsidies now — but raise new revenues to pay for it.

The package will likely include tax hikes for wealthy Vermonters, and possibly the elimination of certain tax exemptions that tend to benefit richer residents.

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Education: VPP Platform

Progressives believe public education is the essential and most inclusive institution in our communities, offering opportunities for all to participate. We will work to:

  • Promote a public education system, Pre-K–12, that provides equal and equitable opportunities for all our children.
  • Replace the residential education property tax with a progressive income tax.
  • Increase the State of Vermont’s share of special-education funding and improve the quality of services offered.
  • Reduce postsecondary tuition costs for Vermonters; include free housing at Vermont state colleges for Vermont students.
  • Repeal the Federal No Child Left Behind Act with its excessive emphasis on standardized testing.
  • Oppose voucher programs, which undercut public education.
  • Support educator efforts at fair, constructive, and comprehensive evaluation and review.

Momentum for school consolidation

In the past week there have been a number of signals around the statehouse that there is growing momentum for a school administrative consolidation effort.  The signals include a working draft of goals that was recently presented to the Education Committee (on which I serve). It includes moving towards approximated 60 governing bodies overseeing K-12 frameworks.  Currently there are approximately 280 governing bodies for a wide range of school administrative systems.

The draft plan allows for towns to decide which neighboring towns they would want to work with, but by if some towns have not "voluntarily" decided by 2019, then the state would finish allocating which towns and districts would need to work together.

This outline will raise flags for some (removing some local control), but will also work to alleviate many duplications in services and hopefully will improve educational options for many children in Vermont.  While the overarching goal is to offer a wider range of class options for many students in Vermont, it will also serve as a tool to work to reduce costs by eliminating many administrative functions/positions.  Not all savings will be realized right away, as there are costs in transition, but as that work is completed, and as our workforce retires, there should be a reduction in the number of administrators.

Throughout the discussion of education funding and the challenges that we are facing with the current funding formula and the reduced rate of property values and the slow growth of other broad based tax revenues, I have been broaching the topic of human services functions that our educators are performing.

As our local schools are asked to do more and more functions that and human serviced related, we have seen an increase in our education spending and therefore more pressure on our property tax funding system.  It is my belief that we should move some of those functions to the area of government that is in charge of that...the agency of human services.  I have been raising the question of whether we can house some of the human services staff (either govt folks or contracted services) right in the schools.  This seems like a particularly good option as we ought to have space in the schools considering we have reduced enrollments (nearly across the state).  By moving these costs to the Agency of Human Services, we can rely on other, more progressive broad based taxes to fund them and move away from the pressure we have been putting onto the education fund.  We also ought to be able to get better results. Rather than each teacher having to learn and address the individual issues that various children have due to family circumstances, there will be councilors and support staff who already have experience with those families in their roles as community councilors.  With greater stability for the children, they ought to be able to learn better.

I am no education nor human services expert, so I am still working to learn more about what is possible, but on the surface, it seems to make sense to me!  Please email me with your thoughts as the more input I have the better.  If you are in these fields in particular and you have examples or experiences, or red flags to raise, please let me know.

Blowing Up the Bridge Out of Poverty

The most distressing aspect of the Administration’s proposal to limit Reach Up benefits is that it will defeat, rather than advance, our goal of moving people out of poverty.  Passed as part of the national welfare reform efforts in the 1990s (remember President Clinton’s vow to “end welfare as we know it”?), Vermont’s Reach Up program is designed to get people into the workforce and permanently out of poverty.  One of the most important programs in our overall welfare-to-work design is the Post-Secondary Education Program.

Because (incredibly!) Federal law does not allow “work participation” credit for college, Vermont set up a separate state-funded program to allow Reach Up recipients (mostly very young women) to attend college, raise their small children and receive Reach Up support while doing so.  The success rate for this cohort has been impressive.  Not only do young mothers then stay out of poverty, they actually earn a livable wage (which is more than twice the minimum wage).

For reasons as yet unclear, the Department for Children & Families (DCF) is apparently reluctant to advise new welfare recipients that this option even exists.  House Human Services heard testimony last week from a mother who already has an AA degree and is taking classes to become a nurse.  Unfortunately, none of the time she spends taking class, preparing for class, or traveling to class (tedious because our public transportation is so inadequate) counts toward the work requirement for her Reach Up grant.  As a result, her family is now at risk of being “sanctioned,” that is, having their monthly food and shelter grant reduced.  Just to put this in perspective, the “full” grant is just 49% of what a family actually needs to get by in Vermont.  So this mother may have to give up school to accept a fast food job.

The Governor’s plan to throw families off Reach Up in October if they have received 36 months of cumulative benefits would further undermine peoples’ ability to move out of poverty.  Either the parents will take low-wage jobs (if any jobs are open) or they and their children will slide further into poverty, possibly homelessness.

Shumlin's Budget Attacks Low-Income Vermonters

Last Thursday, the Governor presented his budget to the joint assembly.  This is an annual ritual that is like a watered-down version of the “State of the Union” address the President will give next month.  It comes complete with awkward pauses for applause and dutiful shout-outs to honored guests.

When it was all over many of us were left wondering what exactly Shumlin's goal is.

On one hand, he wants to increase funding to make Pre-K universal across Vermont.  This is an essential economic development and quality of life tool that will help families with young children.  Shumlin rightly points out that investing at the early end of the education spectrum pays off in the long run in the form of better brain development and more.  Progressives have advocated for more quality pre-school opportunities since Anthony Pollina raised the issue in his 2000 campaign for Governor.

On the other hand, Shumlin wants to cut the state's most successful anti-poverty program to fund this Pre-K expansion.  As Sen. Tim Ashe said in the Burlington Free Press, "It's like robbing Peter to pay Peter less."  Shumlin proposes to take money currently going to the State’s Earned Income Tax Credit.  This program puts cash into the hands of the poorest 44,000 Vermont families.  This is how single moms pay for their rent or groceries.

Compare this funding idea against our proposal last year to increase the income tax for the wealthiest 4,000 Vermonters and you get a clear idea of Shumlin's values.  Our proposal was nixed as a "broad-based tax."  His proposal, which hits 10 times the number of Vermonters, isn't because he's constricting benefits rather than technically raising taxes.  Lovely.

Fortunately we have heard that Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who chairs the House Ways & Means Committee, isn't taking the proposal seriously.  Speaker Shap Smith told Seven Days he has strong concerns about it.  In the Senate, the relevant committee is now chaired by Sen. Ashe.

Shumlin also proposed cuts to the state's "Reach Up" program.  That's welfare for those of you unfamiliar with the jargon.  Apparently, Vermont is too generous with these benefits too.

The governor wants to increase funding for UVM and the State Colleges.  And he wants more money to go to weatherization and renewable energy.  More Progressive priorities.  Most of this gets funded by taxing "break-open" tickets sold in bars, VFWs, etc.  Basically this expands our dependence on the lottery.
Taken together, Shumlin has found about $40 million to fund exciting priorities.  But this money is coming from those who can least afford it, at a time when according to the Public Assets Institute, "real median household income, though slightly higher than last year, was less than in 2007."

Progressives now face the challenge of supporting these important priorities while redirecting attention to alternative sources of revenue.  We will need your help.

Health care report confirms savings potential in single-payer

Details about what our tax bills will look like once Green Mountain Care (our single-payer system) is up and running remain to be seen, but once again experts agree single-payer will: cover everyone, increase the quality of coverage for over 100,000 Vermonters who are currently under-insured, and save money overall.

The entire report can be found here.

From the summary: "Overall, GMC is estimated to save $281 million over the first three years, even with these enhancements to coverage, elimination of the uninsured, and a reduction in out-of-pocket costs for Vermonters.  GMC is estimated to cost approximately $3.5 billion, but only $1.61 billion would need to be financed due to federal contributions for the remaining amount.  In 2013, individuals and employers will contribute approximately $3 billion between private insurance costs and out-of-pocket costs, so overall the costs to Vermonters are reduced under Green Mountain Care."

Universal Pre-K, Democrats, & Taxes

As we wrote last week, it's exciting to hear Gov. Shumlin suggest the legislature enact universal Pre-K. On a more frustrating note, he steadfastly refuses to ask the wealthiest 4,000 Vermonters to pay more income taxes, but apparently has no trouble asking the poorest 40,000 to make do with less.

Shumlin wants to fund Pre-K by cutting back on the benefits the state pays out through the Earned Income Tax credit (EITC). This is the program some consider one ofthe most effective anti-poverty programs we've got. For example, a single mother of two in Vermont earning $20,000 a year gets $1,475 from the state through the EITC.

Last Tuesday, Progressives held a press event denouncing this foolish source of revenue; at the same time we applauded this critical priority. We suggested using the funds from EITC wasn't a serious proposal. What other conclusion could we reach, since democrats weren't joining in the Governor's enthusiasm for the idea?

In fact, by the end of the week even Speaker Shap Smith had stated his reservations about Shumlin's suggested funding source.

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