2-25-15 – Citizens and Legislators Rally to Save School Choice

by Rob Roper

Fifty to sixty Vermonters braved roads covered with sleet and freezing rain to demand that the legislature fix Act 46 (the 2015 consolidation law) to reflect the intent, when passed, that towns that currently have school choice be able to keep it even if they merge with districts that operate public school. The legislation highlighted to make this fix is H.579, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) and Linda Martin (D-Wolcott).

A bipartisan group of about twenty legislators stood by in support, and Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) took to the airwaves on Charlie & Ernie and Open Mike early in the day to promote the event and advocate for the fix. Those who spoke included Reps. Vicki Strong (R-Albany), who organized the press conference, Martin and Scheuermann, John Bartholomew (D-Hartland), Chip Troiano (D-Stannard), and Mike Hebert (R-Vernon).

Citizens came to speak up as well, including Jessica Bernier, a parent from Elmore who moved to that town largely for school choice that has now been lost in a merger with neighboring Morristown, Merri Greenia, the principal of the public Craftsbury Academy, and David Kelley, a member of the Hazen Union school board.

Detailed summaries of what each said can be heard on the video below as well as in these excellent news articles (Don’t Tread on Choice, School Choice Support Reaffirmed at State House).

Overall, the comments reflected a frustration on the part of legislators that when they passed Act 46, all expected that school choice towns would be able to merge with operating districts and retain school choice. Finding out after the fact that this is not so – or at least is not being interpreted as so by the State Board of Education – has been a grave shock.

The parents (which included two of the legislators) and educators gave heart-felt endorsements about what school choice has meant for their own children’s success and the important role school choice plays in their communities, particularly for students of limited means.

But most interesting is a facet of the Act 46 mess that has not been much discussed is the impact loss of school choice will have on many public schools. David Kelley. “I want this audience to understand something that’s very important. Those towns, Wolcott, Walden and Stannard, they bring $604,000 this year to the school that I’m on the board of. If those towns merge with anybody but us, we lose $604,000. Craftsbury loses a half million dollars. At a small school like Craftsbury, you have to ask yourself, how devastating is that loss? Loss of school choice… decimates public schools…. What do we cut [at Hazen]? Foreign languages? Art? Music? Tell me. A half a million dollars is six teachers, and they’re going to go. Crafstbury loses a half million dollars. I think that’s one of the finest schools in the state of Vermont. Half a million dollars in a school with a $3.5 million budget is an awful lot. What do they get rid of? This bill [Act 46] can devastate two good [public] high schools. That’s nuts.”

Rep. John Bartholomew explained the challenges his district is dealing with. “We have four towns in a supervisory union that all of our school boards, as near as I’ve been able to determine are trying to preserve. But, by existing law, you can’t create a “side by side” unless at least there are two school boards that are combining on each side. In our particular district we have three with choice that would like to merge, and one that doesn’t have choice. So, unless existing law is changed… we’re stuck. We’re going to have to throw out a perfectly good supervisory union that everyone’s happy with because we can’t maintain this option [school choice] and move forward.”

If all the good arguments for school choice – better outcomes for children, economic development, attracting young families, etc. — haven’t moved members of the Education Committees to fix the unintended consequences to school choice embedded in Act 46, perhaps the threats to public schools and supervisory unions will open their eyes.

That, and regular citizens like the ones who showed up at the State House giving them a swift kick in the pants.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jim Bulmer February 27, 2016 at 3:39 pm

If the Education Committee made up its collective minds to ignore the details of Act 46 before this outcry, nothing under this sun will make a difference. It’s the same old, same old “Don’t bather me with facts, my minds made up.” All one has to do is poll the NEA in Vermont on school choice and you will find out which the wind is blowing. If they say NO, it’s NO. Done deal. Parents, children, school boards, electorate? They don’t count.

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