Mi escuela es su escuela

By Jack Hoffman

There are humanitarian reasons for Gov. Peter Shumlin to answer President Obama’s call for help with the Central American refugees who have flocked to the U.S. in recent months. But taking in school-age children, especially on a long-term basis, also could help him with one of the perceived problems with Vermont’s education system.

Our schools have room for thousands more students throughout the state. We could try to fill them by welcoming these children into our state and into our schools. It wouldn’t reduce our overall education cost, but it would lower per-pupil spending, which some see as the test of affordability.

Regardless of what happens with these particular children, Montpelier really needs to start seeing the state’s excess school capacity as an asset rather than a liability. Vermont’s school enrollment has been declining for more than a decade, and evidently most political leaders assume it’s an irreversible trend. Their only answer to rising per-pupil costs seems to be to cut spending by consolidating or closing schools.

But another way to reduce the per-pupil cost is to increase the number of students. Vermont’s overall education costs have been remarkably steady. As a percentage of all state and local government revenue, education spending essentially has been flat for 20 years. In 1992, it was 37 percent of state and local revenue; in 2012, it was 36 percent. Per-pupil spending has risen largely because the number of students has dropped. We could turn that around with an influx of young families.

Vermont does put a lot of resources into its public school system and gets better results than most other states. The state consistently ranks in the top 10 in student performance, and for the past couple of years we’ve had one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country. Rather than plan for downsizing our public school system, we should look for ways to market our excess capacity and high quality to young families around the country and around the world.

The children from Central America could be a start. And it’s not only school-age children we need, but also more young adults. Rather than simply house these refugess from Guatemala and Honduras until they can be deported, maybe the governor could find a way to help their families settle here to start to rebuild Vermont’s labor force. Who knows? One of these kids might create the next Cherry Garcia or Heady Topper when he or she grows up.

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Jack Hoffman is senior policy analyst at the Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier-based policy advocacy group.