That law created a statewide property tax and fundamentally changed the way primary and secondary education in public schools is paid for in Vermont. Act 60 in the early days pitted sending towns, or “gold” towns, against receiving towns. Many towns were able to work around the mandates of Act 60 by creating education funds that circumvented the statewide tax-revenue pool, or the “shark” pool as it was called by many sending towns.
By 2003, the Legislature had made a number of changes to Act 60, including how the education tax was raised and how it was distributed. They also did away with the education fund loophole that allowed many towns to avoid paying into the tax pool. This bill became Act 68, and has been the standard for education funding ever since.
Act 60, and more to the point, Act 68, have had an astounding effect on education spending in Vermont. In many towns, spending went up, especially in towns where the new formulas created access to dollars that local taxpayers had been unwilling or unable to approve under the old rules. In other towns, including many here in the Deerfield Valley, property taxes rose considerably. Dover alone sends approximately $10 million more per year into the state education fund than it receives to operate its school.
Writers and commentators this week have been extolling how well Act 60 has worked, how great our education system in Vermont has become, and how equitable the distribution of money has become since 1997. They’re right, to a point. Act 60 and Act 68 met the requirements of the Brigham decision. They have leveled the financial playing field for school districts.
But education in Vermont is not all rosy and perfect. Far from it. School districts are still struggling in efforts to meet the mandates created by Act 60, Act 68, and successor bills that place limits on school spending by using arbitrary and outdated measuring methods, such as per-pupil spending figures. The state needs to move away from those systems, and soon.
From our perspective, while the laws may meet the requirements of the Brigham decision, they have also had a number of unintended consequences. One of those is the decline of rural schools in Vermont. There is no doubt demographics have played a major role in that decline, as our population grows older and fewer and fewer families with children populate rural communities and their schools. But laws like Act 68, with its penalties based on per-pupil spending exceeding certain thresholds, and Act 46, which encourages districts to consolidate, are reactive instead of proactive, and have precipitated the decline in rural communities, including many towns here in the Deerfield Valley.
The question of whether Vermont as a whole is better off today than 20 years ago is one that should also be considered. After all, Act 60 wasn’t the only way to meet the Brigham requirement, it just was the path chosen back then. In those 20 years, lawmakers continue to tinker with schools, education goals, and funding.
Those changes are often driven by looking at the largest schools in Vermont and trying to apply “big city” fixes to small town problems. Those changes have, in general, been reactions to past problems; they don’t necessarily look forward to what schools will have to do to be equitable and successful 10 or 15 years from now. They also do not address in any meaningful way the inherent disparities between large schools and small schools.
Those disparities are where the real challenge lies, and where the next Brigham-style lawsuit may come from.