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Editorial: Spending Questions: How to Figure School Budgets?

The perennial question of whether New Hampshire and Vermont spend too much on public education naturally recurs around Town Meeting, when most school budgets are decided. As staff writer Alex Hanson’s story in the Sunday Valley News indicated, there are a lot of things to think about when it comes to education spending. Prominent among them currently is the role played by declining enrollments at a time of rising expectations for what public education must provide to students. The combination of the two is said to be driving spending ever higher. Vermont ranks first in the nation in per-pupil spending at nearly $19,000, while New Hampshire is 10th at just over $14,000.

But how much is too much? There are a number of ways to approach this. Is education chewing up resources needed to address other pressing public needs? For instance, are mental health services or road maintenance suffering as a result? This is one way to determine whether education is occupying its proper place among government’s many competing priorities.

Another way to look at the question is whether the individual tax burden needed to support schools at their current spending level is too heavy for too many people. The answers may be different between New Hampshire and Vermont, because while both states rely on property taxes, Vermont’s system is a hybrid that ties the school tax burden to income.

Yet another way to figure out whether spending is too high is to try to measure whether the educational results are commensurate with the dollars spent. That is, does Vermont reap the best education in the United States for the money it spends, and New Hampshire the 10th best? Even this is not a straightforward calculation, given that results on standardized tests do not necessarily reflect whether schools are preparing their students to successfully engage in the economic, social and political life of their communities .

To raise these subsidiary issues is not to try to evade the main question, but only to suggest that there may be very different ways of arriving at an answer. And even these leave out value judgments that may come into play. For instance, what monetary value is assigned to having a small local elementary school close by, as compared with a larger, more distant one in another community? And what is it worth to a town’s sense of identity to maintain its own school, as opposed to shipping its students elsewhere?

To the extent that school spending is still a matter for local decision-making, the best test in our minds is whether the school budget as proposed is adopted at Town Meeting, or rejected for reworking. As William J. Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, pointed out in an op-ed also published Sunday, voters pretty consistently approve 90 percent of school budgets each year in Vermont. Critics of the state’s school funding system argue that that’s because many voters are shielded from the full impact of their budgetary decisions by the law’s income- sensitivity provisions. Mathis concludes that there is such an effect, but that it’s small and the weight of a community’s decision to spend above the state-determined per-pupil amount still falls overwhelmingly on the local taxpayers.

It seems to us that when taxpayers conclude that too much of their money is being spent on schools when it’s needed for other things, or that they are getting a poor return on their educational investment or that having a local school is no longer central to their community’s identity, then they will let policy-makers and school officials know about it in no uncertain terms.