Column: Two Roads Diverged: Taxation, Education and How the Twin States Differ

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For the Valley News
Saturday, February 10, 2018

Growing old in New Hampshire, I pay close attention to the differences between the Twin States here in the Upper Valley. It’s probably a result of growing up in Oregon, where we thought we were more progressive than our next-door neighbors on the other side of the Columbia River in Washington.

Vermonter Bill McKibben recently suggested the Town Meeting has a lot to do with political differences on either side of the Connecticut River. New Hampshire and some other states have town meetings too, but Vermont made the first Tuesday of March a state holiday and set it aside for Town Meeting. Town meetings are serious business in Vermont.

McKibben’s article, “The Resistance to Trump Will Be Local” in The Nation, points out that Vermont, which is  “as white as typing paper” and one of the most rural states in the U.S., didn’t go for Donald Trump. New Hampshire didn’t go for him either, but it was a squeaker, while in Vermont, Hillary Clinton won by more than 26 points. And if you go back to 2008, when Barack Obama beat John McCain by 10 points in New Hampshire and by 38 in Vermont, you get a feel for McKibben’s point.

Robert Frost weighed in on the Twin State comparison back in the 1920s, when he wrote his long poem New Hampshire:

Anything I can say about New Hampshire

Will serve almost as well about Vermont,

Excepting that they differ in their mountains.

Near the poem’s end, Frost says he chooses to be a “plain New Hampshire farmer” and mentions that he gets his income from “a publisher in New York City,” adding that he “finds it restful just to think about New Hampshire.” He concludes: “At present I am living in Vermont.”

Frost really didn’t seem to find much difference between the Twin States in the 1920s.

Ten years ago, Harvard sociologist Jason Kaufman compared New Hampshire and Vermont. In a piece titled “Vermont and New Hampshire, Geographic Twins, Cultural Aliens,” The Harvard Gazette reported on a study by Kaufman and graduate student Matthew Kaliner. Kaufman and Kaliner ruled out economics and education as causes for Twin State differences. They looked at “sociocultural indicators” such as Birkenstock dealers and vegetarian restaurants, which are more numerous in Vermont. The key, they concluded, was “idio-cultural migration.”

The people choosing to move to Vermont have fortified an “upscale counterculture,” they report, while New Hampshire immigrants have made it a more blue-collar state.

But, my hunch is that taxation and education really do shape our political differences.

Five years ago, Eduardo Porter reported in The New York Times that in New Hampshire, as well as in a few other states, school districts with high poverty rates get at least 20 percent less money per student than districts with less poverty.

Porter summed the problem up this way: “As income and wealth continue to flow to the richest families in the richest neighborhoods, public education appears to be more of a force contributing to inequality of income and opportunity, rather than helping to relieve it.” This was before Betsy DeVos, who never saw a charter school she didn’t like, became our secretary of education and began to do her best to withdraw financial support from our public schools.

Five years ago, while New Hampshire funded its public schools with 35.5 percent from the state and 58.8 percent locally, Vermont provided 88.4 percent from the state and 4.5 percent locally. Vermont was trying to provide equal financial support to school districts regardless of prosperity levels in the communities around them. Statewide, New Hampshire spent $13,721 per student in 2013 while Vermont spent $16,377.

The differences in support for public education surely have political consequences. One of the things we’ve learned in recent decades is that early education, especially preschool, is crucial in developing citizens who work together for the common good.

This dawning recognition has not become anything like a consensus, but if it does, we’ll probably have more states funding public education the way Vermont does, trying to equalize educational opportunity.

We might even begin to see fair compensation for those who teach public school at the early levels. And we will probably see diminished support for leaders like Donald Trump.

At present I am living in New Hampshire, where there is no progressive state income tax and our governor supports a president with autocratic ambitions.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.