1-19-16 – Some Legislators Are Trying To Save School Choice

by Rob Roper

Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, are dedicated to preserving school choice where it currently exists in the wake of Act 46. The school consolidation law is putting pressure on all school districts to merge under scenarios that leave Vermont’s 93 tuitioning towns with few if any realistic options but to give up school choice.

Two such towns, Westford and Elmore, have already lost choice due to Act 46. But, this was not the intention of the legislature when they passed the law last year, and two bills have been introduced in hopes of rectifying this unintended injustice.

Senate bill, S.249, was introduced by Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille), and House bill, H.579 was introduced by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe). Scheuermann’s bill has a bipartisan list of co-sponsors (ten Republicans and three Democrats).

Westman presented his bill to the Senate Education Committee on Friday, January 15. The conversation that ensued was encouraging. For one thing, it confirmed that legislators genuinely intended for school choice to remain in place, even when merging with a district or districts that operate a public school.

Westman said, “When I voted for what became Act 46 this past year, I did not realize that in the case of an Elmore that they would be giving up school choice.”

The Senate Education Committee Chairwoman, Anne Cummings (D-Washington), piped in, “Neither did we!” She reiterated later, “I don’t think any of us here wanted to do that. The discussion last year was that if you have choice, we’re not taking the choice away from you.”

Senator Philp Baruth (D-Burlington, and Senate Majority Leader) stated, ““Last year, as I remember it, everybody left the building thinking that these mergers would not change anybody’s choice situation. (Cummings again chimed in, “Right.”) And that it would be like it is now. We’d have towns side by side, one that could tuition and one that cant.”

The problem these legislators face (or think they face) is a ruling by the State Board of Education that merged districts must be all choice or no choice, and that districts that operate a public school cannot also tuition, or they run afoul of the state Constitution. So, it’s time to remind our legislators that the State Board of Education has no standing to rule on the constitutionality of a law passed by the legislature. That’s the purview of the courts. And the legislature outranks the State Board of Education.

Please let your legislators know that you support both their original intent to protect school choice under Act 46, and their current attempts to fix a the law to reflect that original intent.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Weiland A. Ross January 23, 2016 at 3:22 pm

It is obvious at this point that Act 46 is a classic “Pelosi Bill”—“pass it now and we will
find out later what is in it”. If it is too far along to repeal, at least it needs drastic
surgery.

As for the matter of school choice, the solution is simple—-allow complete freedom of public school choice to all students, even if there is a public school in town. This
universal public school choice would also require that universal acceptance be mandated. No public school should be permitted to selectively accept or reject
their students.

After the first year of two, when the “new” wore off, there would not be a lot of
confusion. Several benefits would result. One is that the unfair situation that exists
now, in which school choice is haphazardly given to some children but not others, depending on the accident of residence would disappear. Two is that having the option available would have a reassuring effect on parents, even if they did not move
their child immediately. Parents would feel, legitimately, that they had a real control
over their child’s education and would become more involved in education matters. Third, and very important, is that schools that are not performing well would suffer dropping enrollment, and if they did not clean up their act, would have to close. The market place would serve as the selector. The system as a whole would benefit,
Private schools would not be affected much by this, except that they might have to
adjust to some competition for students who would now have the option of attending
a better performing public school without having to worry about the cost of private
schooling, or the need to conform to the selective admission practices of private
schools. The mix of private and public schools that exists now would continue
pretty much unchanged, except that many public schools would lose their “monopoly”
over local students and have to earn their attendance.

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