National media outlet examines Vermont’s history of school choice

by Robert Maynard

Earlier this year True North covered the efforts of North Bennington to close its public school and open up an independent school.  Their effort has drawn national attention to Vermont’s proud history of offering parents school choice.  Here is an excerpt from an article by Mary C. Tillotson of Watchdog.org:

Tuitioning: A different approach to public education.

While most school-choice programs – vouchers, for example – date to the 1990s, Vermont’s town tuitioning program began in 1869, the year Harriet Tubman got married and Leo Tolstoy published “War and Peace.”

Today, the population of Vermont is smaller than Detroit’s, and the state never has been a booming, metropolitan hub. In some towns, it didn’t make sense to operate a school because there weren’t many school-age kids.

Nevertheless, the state had an obligation to provide every child a free education, so it began tying education funding to students instead of schools.

If a town doesn’t have a public school, public funding will follow the student to any public or independent school — including out-of-state and out of country — as long as the school isn’t faith-based. (Faith-based schools were permitted till 1961; three state Supreme Court cases later, they’re not permitted.)

Some independent schools, called town academies, serve students the way a public school would. If a town agrees to make up the difference between tuition and baseline state funding, the school guarantees admission to local students.

Some Vermont communities didn’t build public schools because they already had a town academy. The oldest, Thetford Academy, has been operating since 1819.

Only twice in the state’s history have public schools converted to independent schools. In Bennington County, parents frustrated with high taxes funding a school they weren’t satisfied with converted it to the Mountain School at Winhall in 1998.

Instead of trying to lead the nation down the dead end path of single payer, perhaps Vermont should seek to lead a national push for parental choice in education.