Lawmakers in the Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill updating the state’s school funding formula, a move that advocates hope will help distribute resources more fairly across the state’s public schools.

If enacted, S.287 would make dramatic changes in the state’s education funding system and affect local tax rates and school spending across the state.

“The work of addressing student needs and equity across school districts must be continuous to correct past inequities,” Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, a primary architect of the bill, told lawmakers on the Senate floor Friday. “The work you’re engaging in today is part of this continued work toward educational equity.”

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To the layperson, Vermont’s school funding system can be nearly incomprehensible.

School districts draw up budgets on the local level, but those budgets are paid for through the state’s education fund, which is mostly filled with property tax revenue.

Local tax rates are based not on a district’s total spending, but on its spending per student.

The state recognizes, however, that certain categories of students cost more to educate than others. Low-income students, students learning English or students living in rural areas, for example, require more school resources than their counterparts.

So the state assigns some students a “weight”: a mathematical tool that, effectively, gives them a higher value when calculating tax rates. The more heavily weighted a district is, the more tax capacity — the ability to spend more on students without raising taxes — it has.

But two years ago, a landmark University of Vermont study found that Vermont’s weights had little bearing on the real costs of educating students, and recommended that the state implement new ones.

S.287 represents lawmakers’ attempts to do just that.

The proposed legislation would update the formula’s weights as recommended by UVM researchers, essentially shifting tax capacity between districts with the goal of allowing all schools to adequately fund their children’s education.

“Assuming all education spending remains constant, towns that would have fewer equalized pupils with the new weights than they had from the prior weights would have higher tax rates; towns that would have more equalized pupils with the new weights than they had with prior weights would have lower tax rates,” the analysis said.

It also would set up a new funding system for students learning English. The legislation proposes to allocate set sums of money for districts with smaller enrollments of English learners — $25,000 for districts with one to five students and $50,000 for those with six to 25 — as well as implementing a new pupil weight.

The Agency of Education would be tasked with monitoring the changes in the system and periodically making recommendations for new ones.

Previous drafts of the bill had included an appropriation for the state Agency of Education to hire six employees to implement the changes, but that provision was removed at the request of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

On Thursday, the legislation passed a preliminary voice vote with no apparent opposition. It’s expected to get a final vote in the Senate soon.

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