School Choice debate nearing its first hurdle

Senate Ed to vote by end of week

by Rob Roper

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, Dickens wrote. Add a large dollop of confusion, and that just about describes the debate over school choice in the Senate Education Committee as it works to pass a number of bills before “crossover” at the end of the week, the point at which all bills in the senate need to be passed over to the house and vice versa if they are to have any chance at passage.

These are the best of times for school choice because there is a genuine discussion going on about expanding school choice in Vermont. The governor has asked for a bill expanding school choice at the high school level. The Commissioner of Education, Armando Villaseca, never considered by school choice proponents to be an ally, made a startling statement in a recent Op-Ed about the issue of transportation regarding school choice: “It is hardly insurmountable, as we can build on the strong solutions currently found under the existing school choice system.”

Given that opponents of choice cite transportation as one of their leading objections, the admission that it is “hardly insurmountable” is a welcome development.

However, these the worst of times for those who hoped this debate would lead to a more complete version of school choice, one that includes the hundred-plus independent schools in Vermont. Although there was some sympathy for more expansive choice on the committee, the administration slammed the door on it pretty hard.

Committee chair Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) asked Susan Bartlett, special assistant to the governor, point blank whether or not there was any openness in regard to doing anything other than public school choice. “We just wanted to hear it from the Administration. We think we know what the answer is, but we just want to hear it.”

Mullin asked for a blunt answer, and he got it. “Choice just needs to be within the structure of the public school system as it is,” said Bartlett. “But, expanding beyond that right now, the administration isn’t interested in doing it.”

However, in regard to school choice and another potential program, dual enrollment, the Administration favors a financing system in which the money will follow the child. The alternative would be a system which would treat the policies as a new and separate program, paid for on top of the education fund.

And, here’s where the dollop of confusion comes in. Mill Moore, executive director for the Vermont Independent Schools Association, testified, “The decision on whether or not the money follows the child drastically affects the position of my organization…. When I was last here it appeared as if you were about to go ahead with [a version of the bill that did not embrace money following the child] and so I had come to say today that if you’re going to continue in that vein, which is a money coming off the top model, that the Independent Schools association does not want any independent schools included in the bill. We’d prefer to see you go ahead with [a version of the bill that allows the money to follow the child]. But, if what you heard from Susan Bartlett today becomes persuasive and you want to back up and look at money follows the student, then the independent schools are still quite interested in that scenario.”

The politics seem irreconcilable. A frustrated chairman Mullin moved away from the school choice debate to focus on the dual enrollment bill. It leaves one wondering if a promising debate will end in yet another stalemate where nothing gets done. We’ll know for sure by the end of the week.