Doug Racine: Children’s Mental Health and Property Taxes
Doug Racine: Children’s Mental Health and Property Taxes

This comment is from Doug Racine in Richmond. He has served Vermont as lieutenant governor, secretary of the Human Services Agency, state senator and school board member.

Alarm bells are ringing across Vermont as expected property tax increases have led to more than two dozen school budget failures, with more likely to follow.

The introduction of Act 127 added to the problem and was corrected, providing some relief. However, the main property tax problem still exists and continues to grow. Long-standing problems in our K-12 system and its funding mechanism must be addressed.

The House Education Committee is focusing on possible long-term systemic solutions. The funding issues facing our schools are complex, including health care costs, declining school enrollment, the number of small schools, class sizes and even the sustainability of the existing funding formula. A promising development is a possible new system for financing the state part of school construction, a role the state abandoned many years ago.

A short-term, partial but effective treatment is possible.

Over the years, the K-12 system has incurred ever-increasing costs that are not directly related to classroom instruction. New responsibilities, unfunded mandates and other cost shifts piled up. One of the most significant drivers of costs in schools is the mental health and other social needs of children. This long-standing problem has only accelerated since the Covid-19 pandemic to the point where it is becoming a public health crisis for children and their educational outcomes.

Evidence of the crisis is easy to find. Frequent national reports of rising depression, alienation, suicide, poverty and child abandonment increasingly paint a clear and disturbing picture — and Vermont is no exception.

Vermont educators cite their students’ mental health needs as a major barrier to learning. They lack the support needed to meet the complex social and educational needs of their students.

Children do not enter our K-12 system until age 5 or 6. Then they spend less than a third of their waking hours in school. The rest of the time they are with their families, friends and communities. Educators see too many young children lacking social, emotional and learning skills. These children need extra support to succeed, support that schools provide at great cost or simply cannot afford.

The Education Agency’s recent survey of Vermont school districts reported that 648 new mental health and behavior positions were added in the past three years alone (with 43 of 52 districts reporting). Extrapolated, the additional cost to the system was $50 million, again in just the last three years.

State government has a responsibility to meet the mental health needs of all our citizens, including our children. Instead, the role of government for children has been transferred to schools.

State-funded mental health services are largely focused on adults and young people in crisis or with chronic illness, and not so much on children. Schools have borne much of the cost of prevention, early intervention and treatment programs for children due to a lack of government support. School-paid services are those that are otherwise funded by the state (and community partners) outside the classroom for the rest of the population.

Mental health services are the responsibility of the general government and should be paid for by the General Fund with its broad and more progressive taxes.

Are mental health services needed to help a child’s education? Yes

The same is true of healthy families, stable housing, good prenatal care, nurturing childhoods, good nutrition, parental involvement, strong community, and the opportunities that poverty deprives. The goal of children growing up happy, healthy, educated and ready for the real world is a collective responsibility. Schools play a particularly important role, as do families and communities, but the opportunity to succeed is part of the social contract that includes us all.

The Ways and Means Committee appears poised to propose restoring to the tax code some of the historic progressivity that has been eroded over time by raising taxes on Vermonters’ wealthiest residents.

The additional revenue raised could be added to the General Fund’s “contribution” to the Education Fund this year, thereby reducing the projected increase in property taxes. Additional state resources will bring with them the expectation that schools will be better able to afford and expand services for students.

The mental health and behavioral problems faced by students are the result of a variety of social and family factors, mostly outside the school environment. Symptoms fall into the classroom.

Giving children the help they need is our collective social responsibility, not the responsibility of our schools and property tax payers alone.

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