Op-Ed: Too little, too late for the governor’s education plan

It’s finally spring in Vermont. That means a little lingering snow, the occasional summer-like day, and a last-minute proposal from Gov. Scott to slash education spending.

In a replay of 2017, just when the Legislature is wrapping up its negotiations on the budget, the education fund, and other bills, the governor this week upended the process by releasing a proposal to cut education spending. And like last year, his proposal is light on details or backup information, and he is threatening to veto any bill that doesn’t meet his goals.

It’s important to acknowledge just how unusual the governor’s approach to policy making is. The old refrain “the governor proposes, the legislature disposes” illustrates the difference in the roles of these two separate branches of government.

The governor has all the full-time, year-round resources of the executive branch to develop detailed policy proposals. The Legislature is a group of 180 elected citizens working part-time – in session typically for four months each year – with little pay and limited staff. Governors who are serious about advancing policy change bring detailed proposals to the Legislature and work with legislators to explain the rationale and solicit their support over the course of the January to May legislative session.

There’s a reason the governor is required to propose a budget early in the session, for example. It’s so that the Legislature has time to consider it. Legislative committees hold public hearings, ask questions of administration officials, consult with the Joint Fiscal Office, and spend weeks working out the details each year. The administration begins developing the budget in August and works through the fall to have a budget proposal ready for the governor to submit to the Legislature in January.

Public education is the single largest service that state government provides to Vermonters. It’s the only public service specifically mentioned in the Vermont Constitution. To make significant changes to the education financing system that has served the state well for 20 years requires more than a week’s notice. It requires serious analysis and consideration. It requires understanding where the money is going and why, and who would be affected by the proposed changes. It especially requires thoughtful assessment of the impact on Vermont’s children.

It’s not just the timing of this proposal that’s a problem; it’s the scale and complexity. The governor is calling for a dramatic reduction in the number of teachers in Vermont schools and harsher disincentives for increased per pupil spending. The proposal also uses one-time funds to hold down property tax rates next year, a tactic that the governor used last year that has contributed to the projected increases that he is now trying to avoid.

Last fall, the governor set a goal for fiscal 2019 school budgets to grow no more than 2.5 percent. School districts across the state did better than the governor asked by coming in at 1.8 percent, despite having made cuts to this year’s budgets after voters had approved them because of the governor’s last-minute insistence in 2017 that forced districts to reduce health insurance costs.

It’s hard to take seriously an eleventh-hour proposal like this. It’s the governor’s responsibility to give the Legislature the time it needs for real consideration of a big plan, and to provide the analysis and answers required for them to make good decisions during the regular legislative session.

The Legislature should finish its business and go home as scheduled. They should not spend extra weeks into June dealing with another tardy administration proposal.

 

Written by Stephanie Yu for Public Assets Institute, www.publicassets.org.

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