by Rob Roper
One major criticism of the recent legislative session is that Montpelier did not take up at all the issue of school costs and financing. In fact, all the legislature did was strip the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission of its mandate to look into the problem. So, local communities are working to find solutions on their own.
One of those towns is Woodbury, and the solution they are looking at is school choice.
The problem facing this small town in Washington County is familiar to many around Vermont: it has a small school with a small and shrinking student population and skyrocketing per pupil costs. The demographic and financing issues were spilling over into the quality of the education students were receiving, and Woodbury’s test scores ranked near the bottom of the state and have for several years.
Although the Commissioner of Education, Armando Vilaseca, has been aggressively pushing a program of school district consolidation as a solution for towns like Woodbury (a measure championed in the legislature by Woodbury’s own representative, Peter Peltz), so far his efforts have not sparked much enthusiasm anywhere in the state.
Woodbury is considering a different direction: voting to close their public school and adopt a policy of school choice, allowing parents to use public money to send their children to other public or approved independent schools.
Woodbury would not be alone. Currently ninety-two towns in Vermont have taxpayer funded school choice to one extent or another. Variations on this nearly 150-year tradition in Vermont range from complete school choice to very limited. Many towns that have school choice have found it to be a strong economic driver, attracting educationally minded parents who also happen to bring businesses and jobs with them when they move into the district to take advantage of choice.
Some in Woodbury also see this as a way to save money. For example, if a child chose to attend the Orchard Valley Waldorf School just down the road, taxpayers would save roughly $5000, the difference between the independent school tuition and the per pupil cost of the current public school.
Woodbury’s road to school choice has been long and well researched. The town first formed a General Options Committee to review all possible paths Woodbury could take to address the public school’s viability. A second, volunteer Finance Committee came together to look at different ways to address the financial implications of the various options.
In the next step the select board voted to hire professionals to work with a committee of twelve local people to do an evaluation of the options. Worked with a committee of 12 local people. This led to a town-wide, non-binging vote that, in the end, was not terribly conclusive.
Now, on June 27, Woodbury townspeople will be asked to cast a binding vote to close their local public school and embrace school choice.
“This decision has to be about what’s best for the kids,” said Retta Dunlap, a Woodbury resident and school choice advocate. “I’m not convinced that the cost/quality ratio of our current situation is really serving our children as well as it should, and I do think the best way for them to solve this is to empower parents to choose the best school to fit their children’s needs.”
If the townspeople of Woodbury are successful, they could serve as an example to other Vermont towns.