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Vt. House Clears Plan To Encourage Equity

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The Vermont Senate last week began work on a controversial measure that would end property-tax funding for the schools and establish a system of statewide collective bargaining for teachers.

The bill, which seeks to reduce disparities between wealthy and poor school districts, passed the Democrat-controlled House earlier this month. But it faces tougher prospects in the Senate, where the Republican majority has a slate of complaints about the proposal.

Under the plan, which was first discussed last year, the portion of local property taxes designated for operating schools would be abolished and replaced with local income taxes and a statewide tax on nonresidential property and vacation homes. Sales, corporate, and rooms-and-meals taxes would also rise, as would other fees and taxes. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993.)

Backers of the proposal for a statewide teacher contract argue that equalizing teacher salaries would have a big impact on disparities in spending among districts, while also taking contentious labor negotiations out of the local education picture.

"This enables each community to have the exact-same wherewithal to support education as every other community,'' said Sen. Jeb Spaulding, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "This is an absolutely remarkable piece of work.''

Economic Impact Questioned

Mr. Spaulding expressed hope that time will win enough G.O.P. support in the Senate to pass some version of the finance overhaul.

"It is a mammoth proposal, and as people learn more about how it works together, maybe they will have a little more of an open mind to it,'' he said.

Vermont officials argue that the school-finance measure offers the state an opportunity to rethink the foundations of its tax policy. In addition to the shift from local property taxes, for example, the bill changes the way in which the state taxes agricultural and forest lands.

Opponents worry, however, that the massive tax shift would have a harmful economic impact, threatening jobs and possibly stalling a modest recovery from the state's prolonged economic doldrums.

Neither side has commissioned a comprehensive economic analysis of the proposed tax changes, so the debate has pitted assurances from economists solicited by the bill's backers against the doubts of its opponents.

House Democrats blocked an amendment that would have sent the plan to the chamber's commerce committee to scrutinize its economic impact.

"A lot of us are concerned about the rate at which this bill is traveling,'' a Republican complained during the House debate.

As the bill moves to the Senate, its supporters will try to steer attention away from the tax provisions, which one Senate leader said made the House plan "dead on arrival.''

Focus on Quality

Indeed, the program faces many opponents because of its wide-ranging measures. Both the Vermont Education Association and the Vermont School Boards Association oppose the statewide teacher-bargaining plan.

Wealthy and poor districts have made contrasting arguments against the proposal, said Don Jamieson, the executive director of the V.S.B.A.

Wealthy districts fear that their teachers would receive minimal pay increases as the rest of the state catches up. But poor districts are concerned that higher salaries would make community budget approval harder because of resentment of existing teacher-pay levels.

Both kinds of districts also argue that fixed pay levels will reduce their leverage in reaching agreement on other issues with teachers.

To minimize such disputes, Senate supporters intend to focus lawmakers' attention on a companion school-quality proposal, which includes increased teacher training and evaluation, public school choice, a charter-school program, and incentives for districts to adopt a longer school year.

Senate backers of the finance bill said a crucial part of their strategy is to gain support for the plan by promising a better return on the state's education spending.

Legislative leaders expect to move the Senate bill out of committee within the next few weeks and see it through the finance and appropriations committees by mid-March. That would allow time for a joint House-Senate conference before the legislative session concludes in May.

Observers said the next few weeks will determine if momentum from the swift House action will carry over to the Senate.

"Maybe not for the country, but for Vermont we have an historic opportunity,'' Mr. Spaulding said. "This is our chance to equalize funding at the state level, leave decisions to local schools, and enhance quality.''

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