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Vermont Lawmakers Approve New Aid Formula

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In a vote called "historic'' by Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin and Steven S. Kaagan, the state commissioner of education, the Vermont legislature has approved a new school-finance formula aimed at helping districts spend the amount necessary to meet state standards without raising taxes.

However, the legislature failed to endorse Governor Kunin's proposal to finance the plan, in part, by requiring wealthier districts to subsidize poorer ones.

Under the plan, approved late last month, the legislature agreed to provide an additional $24 million in state aid in fiscal 1988, bringing the total to $111 million, to enable districts to spend $2,800 per elementary-school student and $3,400 per high-school student without raising local taxes above the state average. If a district cannot meet those spending levels, which the education department has determined are necessary to meet minimum state standards, the state will make up the difference.

"For the first time, this links state general aid to the provision of a good, basic education,'' Mr. Kaagan said. "This indicates a commitment to equality of education across the state that before has been nebulous.''

Mr. Kaagan noted that, in addition to providing the largest one-year increase in school aid in the state's history, the legislature also vowed to boost aid by an additional $15 million in fiscal 1989.

Some legislators, including Michael Barnhardt, the House minority leader, suggested that the plan was inadequate because it will not be fully funded until next year. Rather than a "foundation plan,'' as its sponsors called it, the proposal "is a plan on stilts,'' Mr. Barnhardt said.

But the House passed the final version of the plan with only a handful of dissenting votes; the Senate approved it by a voice vote.

The issue of school finance was a top priority for Governor Kunin, who had devoted her inaugural address to the topic. (See Education Week, Jan. 28, 1987.)

Debate over the issue helped make this year's session the longest in more than 20 years. Legislators did not vote on an overall budget until they had resolved how much they would spend on aid to school districts.

In all, the legislature agreed to a $500-million general-fund budget, a 16 percent increase over current spending. In addition to the increase in aid to schools, the budget also includes a 7 percent increase in funding for the education department, bringing total spending for precollegiate education to $141 million.

In other action, the legislature approved a measure, proposed by Ms. Kunin, to provide $500,000 for local groups, including education agencies and private organizations, to provide educational services for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds.

In addition, the legislature approved two measures aimed at improving school-district management. One would require districts to undergo an independent audit periodically. The other would enable districts to band together to buy materials in bulk. That measure is expected to save districts $3 million a year, according to Judy Stephanie, an aide to Governor Kunin.

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