New committee assignments spell trouble for school choice.

by Rob Roper

Burr & Burton Academy

2010 witnessed a groundswell of pro-school choice sentiment in Vermont. When Secretary of Education Armando Villaseca and legislators in the house and senate proposed various plans for consolidating Vermont’s 280 school districts into anywhere from sixteen to sixty larger districts, parents in Vermont’s “tuitioning” towns took notice.

Consolidation would effectively eliminate Vermont’s 140 year tradition of giving parents in 92 towns that do not have public schools the ability to send their child to any non-religious, public or private school of their choosing, with their tax dollars following the child.

This system and the communities that enjoy choice have given rise to some of Vermont’s most celebrated educational institutions, such as St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr & Burton Academy, Lyndon Institute, Thetford Academy, Sharon Academy, and the Long Trail School.

Parents, many of whom testified that they moved to where they lived specifically because of school choice, recognize the singular opportunities Vermont’s tuitioning towns offer for their children. But, despite the popularity and success of school choice in Vermont (or perhaps because of it) the Vermont NEA, arguably Vermont’s most powerful union, is vehemently opposed to it.

Nevertheless, in 2010, school choice advocates found serious allies on both the House and Senate Education committees. In the Senate, Education Committee Chair, Robert Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) represented a number of tuitioning towns in the North East Kingdom, as did Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), whose district is home to the Sharon Academy where the grassroots support for school choice is strongest. Two Republicans on the Committee, Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), and Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) are staunch school choice supporters, and the final member, Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington) appeared sympathetic.

Chairman Starr organized a statewide tour over the course of the session to discuss the issue with local parents and educators. The testimony uncovered widespread support for school choice across party lines. (See Video)

Even in the more liberal House Education Committee, chaired by the overtly anti-school choice Joey Donovan (D-Burltington), the four Republicans on the Committee, led by Rep. Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport) were able to work closely enough with two Democrats on the committee, Frank Geier (D-South Burlington) and Linda Waite-Simpson (D-Essex) to form a nominally pro-school choice 6-5 majority.

All that has changed in 2011. Speaker of the House Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) and the new Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) have remade the committees almost entirely.

Four of the five members of the Senate Education Committee are gone, including Chairman Starr. Only the 84 year old Bill Doyle remains on the committee, and he is currently hospitalized with pneumonia.

Although the new Chairman will be Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), who comes from a school choice town himself, the other new members of the committee are far more liberal than those they replaced: Sen. Virginia Lyons (D- Chittenden), Senator Sara Kittell (D-Franklin) and freshman Senator Philip Baruth (D-Burlington).

Baruth’s views in particular regarding school choice border on the paranoid, “If public schools are machines for turning out liberals, then the idea was never simply to make the machines function more efficiently. The idea was also to make the machines look bad, so that they could be replaced by other machines – more private schools where more conservative ideologies could take earlier root. As any school superintendent will tell you, over the next few years No Child Left Behind is going to certify thousands of otherwise healthy schools as “failing”, triggering a whole series of indirect financial penalties.”

In the House committee, only four of the eleven 2009-10 members remain, including Donovan who will remain as chair. Kilmartin is gone, along with the two sympathetic Democrats, Waite-Simpson via reassignment and Geier, who did not run for re-election to the House.

The new Vice Chairman for the committee is Howard Crawford (R-East Burke) whose day job is as Dean of Students at St. Johnsbury Academy. While St. Johnsbury Academy has benefited greatly from Vermont’s tuitioning town system, Crawford has an incentive to protect the Academy’s interests against opening themselves up to competition from to other choice schools.

The other members of the House Educaton Committee for 2011-2012 are Buxton (D-Royalton), Campion (D-Bennington), Christie (D-Hartford), Clark (R-Vergennes), Gilbert (D-Fairfax), Lewis (R- Berlin), Perley (R-Emosburgh), and Stuart (D-Brattleboro).