Bloated Bureaucracy Closes Vermont Schools

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Holcombe: Strongly opposes school choice

In 2013, Vermont held the distinction of having the lowest student-teacher ratio in the nation (10:1). This might be a good thing — if it were affordable. This bloat in school administrators relative to student population is a national infection, but Vermont's intractable bureaucrats are particularly agile.

Recently, Vermont enacted sweeping consolidation (Act 46) of its public schools, closing many small rural schools under the pretense of saving money — yet costs instead increased substantially. In 2018, the Green Mountain State's schools' administration expenses were exceptionally expensive:

Vermont's relatively highest spending category per pupil was in school administration ($1,296; US average $651), which was second highest only to DC ($1,447). Vermont ranked sixth in teacher salaries ($6,743, US average $4,603 ...)

Vermont's anemic economy, struggling under high taxes and regulations, leads many regular wage-earners to leave (with their children). Yet declining student numbers do not translate into a decline in administrators, any more than declining taxpayer incomes restrain those state workers' incomes and benefits.

Vermont's 53 school superintendents receive an average $155,417 salary, or 2.59 times the state's median income of $60,076. Vermont spends $8,237,101 annually on superintendents, despite declining student enrollment (a 25.5% decrease from 1997 to 2016). Its school system is now 49th in the nation in size but #2 in costs as a percentage of median income ($18,290/$60,076, with New York at #1).

Five years ago a cogent criticism of this escalating failure was voiced:

... 80 percent of school budgets consist of compensation for teachers and staff, yet no serious public conversation has addressed how costs have reached these levels and whether taxpayers can continue supporting them[.] ... Labor costs per pupil increased in 2012 by 6.6 percent, double the national rate[.]

Worse, Vermont's pension system is one of many underfunded in the country, estimated to be some $4.5 billion in the red. The actual shortfall is most certainly much higher, because the state has employed extraordinarily optimistic projections for returns on invested funds to understate true liabilities.

Many small rural schools have been closed, leading to a high-profile lawsuit by thirty-three school districts challenging the Act 46 legislation: a decision by the state's highest court is pending. Whatever the outcome, teachers and other administrators will ultimately find themselves in open war with desperate taxpayers unable to foot the bill.

Vermonters truly value their teachers, who are asked to deal with ever greater problems in children due to anxiety, broken homes, drug abuse, and behavioral issues. Bloating bureaucracy is not so simple as blaming one side versus another: the problem is a modern one, caused by decaying community and rural values, and economic centralization:

The local schools no longer serve the local community; they serve the government's economy and the economy's government…. Professionalism means more interest in salaries and less interest in what used to be known as disciplines. And so we arrive at the idea, endlessly reiterated in the news media, that education can be improved by bigger salaries for teachers — which may be true, but education cannot be improved… by bigger salaries alone.

Wendell Berry, "The Work of Local Culture," What Are People For?, 1990, p. 164

A dairy farmer with a shrinking herd of cows lacks the luxury of increasing his salary: economic limits constrain him — he cannot set the price of milk. A government that awards pay raises to teachers and superintendents even as the "herd" of students shrinks, while compressing the schools into a more centralized (and expensive) consolidation, is destroying its community at the source, consigning its children to CAFOs.

Schools close, bureaucracy grows. To avert a collapse of Vermont's school system and economy, this "progression" must be reversed.