by Shayne Spence
The legislature in the last biennium has been consistently attacking school choice in Vermont after North Bennington’s decision to close its public school and reopen an independent school in its place. This move gives every child in that town, and 92 other tuitioning towns in Vermont, school choice. That debate has come to the forefront again with a Town Meeting Day ballot initiative in Westford to look into closing their public school and setting up and independent school. With great examples to follow like St. Johnsbury Academy, Lyndon Institute, Burr and Burton, the Compass School, and others, it is obvious why parents would want their children to have access to the opportunities choice and independence bring. These schools have a long history of providing quality education to children of all segments of society, and in many cases for far below the cost of the public schools.
Senate Bill 91 would impose a two-year moratorium on a town’s ability to close their public school and reopen it as an independent school and study the constitutionality of local communities doing this. “There seems to be a more focused discussion on trying to prevent more North Benningtons,” said Senate Education vice-chair Sen. Don Collins (D-Franklin).
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has North Bennington in the heart of his district, sees the issue much differently. Sen. Sears asked, “Is it constitutional for us to say to a local school district, whether it be North Bennington, Westford, or Putney, ‘You can’t become an independent school.’”
The moratorium would stop local communities from closing their public school and leasing the building to an independent school that serves essentially the same population. While this does not expressly forbid the practice of setting up an independent school or voting to close a public school, it puts a massive capital burden in the way of doing so. For example, if Westford decides to set up an independent school before the moratorium is up, they will have to build an entirely new school building, and leave the old public school building vacant or repurpose it. By passing this bill, the Senate would achieve Sen. Collins’ goal of “trying to prevent more North Bennington’s.”
But should the legislature even be trying to take away this form of local control? Nationwide studies have shown that allowing school choice through the use of a tuition voucher leads to better or equal results, for anywhere from 29-87% of the cost, with higher parental satisfaction. For example, Westminster’s Compass School, founded in 1999 by local parents and educators, has a nearly 100% graduation rate and a 90% college acceptance rate, with a 2013 tuition rate set at the average tuition rate of $13,078. The statewide public school per pupil average is $18,751.
Opponents of school choice argue that it leads to a lack of access to special education services if independent schools are not required to offer them. However, the evidence doesn’t support the argument. At the Compass School, for example, 30% of students were on an individualized education plan (IEP) in the public schools, and receive special education services at Compass. And parent, Kirby school board member and special educator Bill Storz attributes his district’s low special education rates to the prevalence of choice in the area. Storz says, “I honestly think that the choice system allows people to feel empowered about their situation, and I think it logistically allows them to find matches. Last year we crunched some numbers on special education…and we found that we have very low numbers in special education. And I, anecdotally, attribute that to people being better able to match.”
Another argument opponents make is one of equity, particularly in light of the Brigham decision. Joel Cook of the Vermont NEA claimed that choice is “inherently discriminatory”, leading to segregation between rich and poor students. Bill Mathis of the Vermont Board of Education argues that “choice only exists if you can get there”, asserting that parents who could not afford to transport their children would not have access to independent school education even with a voucher. However, the history of tuitioning towns shows this is untrue. In the Northeast Kingdom, a rural area with the highest poverty levels in the state, the two best-known schools are independent schools which accept tuitioning students from all over. And since each student who comes to those schools brings with them a $13,000-16,000 voucher, those schools have a very strong interest in ensuring students can get there. St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute, which serve the most rural part of Vermont in the Northeast Kingdom, help parents arrange carpools and provide busing in some cases so that all students have access to quality education, no matter the distance or price of gasoline.
School choice through publicly funded vouchers is the best way to ensure that every student in Vermont has access to a high quality education, regardless of race, socioeconomic class, or geographic location. Parents in Kirby have access to whatever quality education they wish, be it St. Johnsbury Academy, Lyndon Institute, or any of the many other public or approved independent schools in the area. However, if you cross over the border into Concord, parents and students only have access to the local public school, unless they are capable of paying their tuition rates in addition to their existing property tax bill. If we want to talk about inequality, this is a perfect example of it, created and enforced by the State of Vermont. With a $13,078 tuition voucher, every parent has access to a costly private education, while the state upholds its constitutional objective of providing for public education.
The large number of school budget rejections on Town Meeting Day is a clear indication that the education finance system under Act 60/68 is broken, and voters are demanding a change. The threat of consolidation was a serious factor in North Bennington’s decision to go independent. If the legislature really wants to “prevent more North Benningtons” as they say, they need to allow that choice for ALL towns, whether they have a public school or not. The battle here is not one of public vs. private, or even more spending vs. less. The question is whether we can educate students better through a one-size-fits-all approach, or by opening up options that will work for everyone.
Shayne Spence is the Outreach and Development Coordinator for the Ethan Allen Institute.