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Very Small Districts Have Unique Challenges, Brief Finds

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by Jill Remick, director of communications and legislative affairs, Vermont Department of Education

BARRE — Bruce D. Baker, professor in the Department of Educational Theory Policy and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and Wendy I. Geller, data administration director at the Vermont Agency of Education, jointly published a research brief exploring efficiency and equity in Vermont public schools, the agency announced today.

Preliminary analysis of data on Vermont school districts shows that Vermont school districts experience a combination of:

Higher spending than both like and neighboring states;

Higher taxes than like and neighboring states; and

Fewer comprehensive academic programs than could be provided at scale.

In addition, high costs relative to student enrollment are most evident in tiny elementary schools and districts. Baker and Geller also found that program breadth and depth may be compromised in the state’s very small high schools.

“Dr. Geller’s partnership in this study is part of the governor’s initiative to provide better data and research to local school boards, so they can understand the choices, challenges, and trade-offs they face as they work to make good decisions for children in a time of tight resources,” said  Department of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. “The governor’s concern is that in times of fiscal stress, school boards often struggle to preserve equity and quality. With solid empirical information, boards can lead their communities toward better, child-centered solutions. This paper explores one of several elements districts have to think about when they make choices surrounding the dollars they invest, particularly at the high school level, so that boards can ensure they are investing in the most effective way to buy the best education possible for our children.”

In the report, Baker and Geller note that Vermont remains among the highest spending states in the nation when it comes to elementary and secondary education, while experiencing a long-term decline in student enrollment. They articulate the distinction between district consolidation and school consolidation, as these terms are often confused or used interchangeably.

“Consolidation of very small districts and schools as exist in Vermont can lead to long-run cost savings, as well as improved equity in access to curricular and co-curricular opportunities,” the report states.

Using examples such as Addison County and Western Rutland regions, the report demonstrates how maintaining very small districts and schools requires inefficient state expenditure, high taxation, and leads to inequitable programs and services available to children from neighboring small districts who attend schools within a reasonable distance of each other.

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