Civil war destroys the calm of fall in Vermont

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The Independent Online
THE INSCRIPTION on Robert Frost's white marble grave reads "I had a lover's quarrel with the world". Something of that unease is felt today among his fellow Vermonters. For these understated New Englanders, who pride themselves on being reasonable, democratic, even idealistic, now are livid with each other and with state authorities over the two issues closest their hearts: the schooling of their children and the value of their houses.

The poet is buried in Old Bennington churchyard, in a southern Vermont town basking in an autumn so perfect it almost hides the fury of its people. The aspens and birches have turned to red. The sky glows a deep, deep blue; the days are cool, the evenings sharp, and the nights linger with a hint of mist in the pines. One would never guess that at meetings in nearby Manchester, the state governor has felt sufficiently nervous to increase his force of bodyguards to five, from the usual one.

At issue is Act 60, a well-intentioned reform of school funding which has gone badly wrong. Supporters and opponents of the changes are shocked, even distressed, by the public exposure of anger - and class envy. The local airwaves are awash with bile. The correspondence columns of local papers speak of little else, and in conversation you have only to mention Act 60 to summon a torrent of invective.

"Reconsider this whole Socialist policy called Act 60 - and give back Vermont to the true American," one paper wrote. Another local correspondent simply recommended that supporters of the Act "engage brain before starting mouth".

State and local elections in November are already a one-issue campaign fostering unconventional alliances. Lifelong Democrats and pro-choice campaigners profess themselves ready to support anti-abortion Republicans, if only they will rewrite Act 60.

Everyone does agree the objective of the Act was laudable, to guarantee all schools the same base level of funding per pupil, so a school in a rundown town could provide an education not markedly inferior to that in the rich ski resorts.

Two years ago, equality of opportunity was the mantra for Vermont Democrats, who recognised a widening gap between towns which had prospered from tourism, and the former manufacturing and railway towns which had fallen on hard times. The disparity had a direct impact on schools, because education in Vermont is funded primarily out of local property taxes.

Rich areas spent up to four times the amount per pupil than less fortunate localities. Perversely, those in wealthier surroundings also paid propor- tionately less in property taxes than their poorer neighbours, because there were often more taxpayers and fewer school-age children. In early 1996, reform became not only politically desirable, but legally required, when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide all children with equal access to quality education, regardless of their address. But what happened next pushed a good half of Vermonters (mainly the richer half) towards open revolt. This law-abiding state now has eight towns committed to withholding all tax payments to the state this December.

"Why do you support a law that hurts any child, any parent, any taxpayer in Vermont?" one opponent asked the governor, Howard Dean, a Democrat who signed Act 60 into being 18 months ago. Mr Dean admitted it was "awful", while claiming "everything else is worse".

In the approach to next month's elections, Republican candidates have come out fighting Act 60. Democrats, aware that at least half the state's voters oppose it, have become ultra-cautious. They could lose control of the state Senate, and a host of representatives in the lower house could lose their seats. Act 60 standardised property taxes across the state and required local authorities to remit the money to the state for redistribution - to allow standard spending of $5,500 (pounds 3,200) per pupil per year throughout the state. What angered rich towns was that the $5,500 per pupil they would get back would be considerably less than they were spending on their schools already. They would have the choice of deep cuts in spending or sharp rises in local taxes to bridge the gap.

For instance, in picture-pretty Manchester, one elementary school must find an extra $2,000 (pounds 1,200) per pupil per year from local contributions. Potential cuts include gymnastics and music.

In the smaller, quieter town of East Dorset, Mary Barrosse, who has three children, has become leader of the state's chief anti-Act 60 lobby group. She runs Vermont Parents for Quality Education, which publishes newsletters and Internet information bulletins. The group has more than 600 members.

Mrs Barrosse's change of heart bodes ill for the Democrats this autumn. She and her husband chose East Dorset for its schools and took a smaller house than they could have afforded elsewhere. Two years ago, she campaigned for more equality in school funding and was willing to pay higher income tax to help to subsidise poorer schools.

But Act 60 will not do that. All it has done, she says, is set rich towns, dubbed "sharing towns", against poor "receiving" towns. "If someone breaks a leg, you don't break the other to equalise the pain, you try to repair the broken one," she said. "So with schools: poor schools should be helped, but without dragging down the rich schools."

In place of "equal opportunity", Act 60's opponents have co-opted another mantra - "local control". But their adversaries say that is a euphemism for protection of privilege.

The rich towns' predicament is also that of an educated middle class which values schooling above almost anything else. If school spending is equalised, they see the loss of the sacrifices they have made (a bigger mortgage for a more expensive house with higher taxes). Mrs Barrosse's family is considering a move, not just out of town, but out of state.