An Education Debate Hits the Floor

The fifth week of the legislative session was marked by continued committee work and extended floor debates. As I noted earlier this week, on Wednesday, the House floor became the site of a longwinded debate about a resolution on conducting an election recount. On Friday, the floor again ran long as members debated amendments to the first education policy bill of the session, S.1.

S.1 is a bill to authorize the Secretary of Education to revise the Agency of Education’s (AOE) count of children enrolled in prekindergarten. The bill is necessary to address a counting error that was related to whether or not preK institutions had completed criminal background checks for their employees. Left unaddressed, the erroneous count could impact certain school districts pupil counts, which could raise Vermonters’ property taxes. In order to ensure fairness, the bill had to be passed last week so AOE had time to conduct its count.

The House Education Committee worked quickly to advance S.1 through the process. I joined my fellow committee members in unanimously supporting the measure. Thus, I was very disappointed when we learned Rep. Paul Poirier was going to offer up a non-related amendment on the floor. Rep. Poirier’s amendment brought forth a key element of Governor Scott’s education proposal — mandating May 23rd as the annual date on which local communities’ school budget votes must occur.

As I’ve stated repeatedly, I support elements of the Governor’s education plan (see this video interview of my general response to the education proposal). The Governor’s plan moves money between the Education Fund and General Fund. These movements result in a $135.9 million dollar increased cost to the Education Fund, which is partially offset by increasing the General Fund Transfer to the Education Fund by $86 million. The remaining $50 million is proposed to be balanced by a series of assumed cost savings.

While some of these changes may sound appetizing, there are some practical matters that don’t appear to work. For instance, the Governor’s plan books savings in areas, like healthcare, that may not actually realize their intended savings. The potential gaps in savings, coupled with the plan’s intent to move new spending into the Education Fund, means that it could actually result in a property tax increase. I’m not sure we should be adding costs to the Education Fund at a time when Vermonters have cautioned against property tax increases.

The first step that the Governor proposed two weeks ago called for the legislature to move the annual budget vote date to May 23rd, starting this year. Rep. Poirier’s amendment forced the issue to a vote. After extensive debate, the amendment failed 87-47. I voted against the amendment.

Next up, Rep. Scott Beck introduced an amendment to require that, starting in May, 2018, school district budget votes would occur no earlier than the Tuesday preceding Memorial Day. Rep. Beck is a member of the Education Committee. While we agree on many policy issues, I was disappointed that he chose to offer an amendment on S.1, given that the bill was unanimously support by our committee and the Scott Administration. The amendment failed 83-52. I voted against the amendment to protect the underlying bill.

You can catch up with all the day’s floor results by reading the House Journal. A full listing of all of the proceedings of the House floor is here.

I expect week six will be less turbulent in the House Education Committee. We continue to look at universal preK implementation, governance reform under Act 46, career and technical centers, and a variety of other important areas. Elsewhere in the State House, the money committees are beginning to narrow their sights on how to balance FY2018’s budget. It’s worth noting that the failure of the education amendments on the floor cast significant doubts on the Governor’s education plan. After all, the Scott Administration called for a special State mandated school budget vote on May 23. The plan failed to garner support. Its failure leaves a gaping hole in the proposed budget.

Disagreements between the executive and legislative branches of government are not uncommon. As more than one historian of America’s legislative chambers has joked, “the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.” All kidding aside, I am hopeful we can continue our work and balance the budget for a timely adjournment.