Commentary: Expand, don’t restrict school choice options

For over 150 years, Vermont has operated the most equitable and dynamic school choice program in the nation. Any parents of any children in towns/districts that do not have a public school (some 90 Vermont towns) can choose any public or approved independent school to send their child with an amount of money following the child that is competitive with, if less than, the cost to educate that child in the public school system.

This system has given rise to some of Vermont’s most sought-after educational experiences, not just locally but globally. The four “traditional academies”, St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr & Burton, Lyndon Institute, and Thetford Academy, attract students from roughly thirty countries, making these choice schools by far the most racially, culturally, economically, and intellectually diverse in our state. And, given the tuition paid by these out of district students (as much as $64,500 a year), these schools are critical economic engines in their communities.

In addition to the four academies, there are over 100 independent schools throughout Vermont serving over 10,000 students, including over forty with specific missions to serve students with special needs. Of the general admission independent schools, we see some of the top performing schools in the state in terms of student outcomes in places like the Sharon Academy (tuition: $18,500) and the Long Trail School (tuition: $19,860).

It is worth noting that these stellar outcomes and unique opportunities offered by independent schools come at significantly less taxpayer expense than government-run public schools. The maximum tuition allowed to follow a child to an independent middle or high school this year is $16,020, and $17,278 respectively (exceptions made with local voter approval), compared to an average of $23,299 per public school pupil (NEA Research, April 2022). That’s about a 25 percent taxpayer discount!

One would think that based on a simple cost/benefit analysis (and a long-standing outcry by voters to reduce education property taxes) lawmakers would be eager to expand Vermont’s tuitioning system. But, when this legislature returns to Montpelier in January, Vermont’s century-and-a-half-year-old, highly successful experience with school choice will be under threat of elimination.

The US Supreme Court ruled this past summer in Carson v. Makin that if a state chooses to operate a school choice program that allows independent schools to participate – which Vermont does — the state cannot discriminate against religious independent schools by barring them from competing for students – which Vermont has been doing since the 1960s. Such discrimination was determined to be in violation of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.

What this means for Vermont is that now other high achieving schools, such as Rice Memorial High School (tuition: $12,214) in Burlington and Christ the King (tuition $5,590) in Rutland are now available choices for tuitioning students. That’s a good thing.

But rather than allow this benefit, several powerful Vermont lawmakers are pledging to eliminate Vermont’s tuitioning system for all independent schools. Families without a public school in their district would have to pick a public school in another district to send their child or pay out of pocket to continue in their current independent school – if they can afford it, and if that school can remain viable at all without tuitioning. This is the preferred approach by Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor), who, ironically, sent her own children to Groton, the elite Massachusetts boarding school (tuition: $59,995) at her own expense.

Another approach is that of Senate Education Committee Chair, Brian Campion (D-Bennington), which would essentially force all independent schools that receive tuition dollars to operate as public schools in terms of admissions and programming. In other words, force the more expensive model that is demonstrably failing many of its lower income and non-English-language speaking students onto the less expensive more successful schools rather than the other way around.

If we want to apply the same public-school standards to independent schools, fine. But then let’s also apply the same independent school standards to public schools. For example, 1) limit amount of taxpayer dollars flowing to a public school to $17,228 per pupil. If we did that Vermont property taxpayers would save roughly a third of a billion dollars a year. 2) If parents decide the public school is not meeting their child’s needs, they can pull the child out of the public school at any time and send him or her to another with the money following the child. And 3) if a public school fails to actually deliver in practice its legal obligations to serve all special needs students, all public funding for that school will be pulled. That’s fair.

If two years of Covid showed us anything it is that parents need and deserve a multitude of educational options that they can choose from to meet their child’s and their family needs. The wealthy can choose to hire tutors, create “learning pods”, homeschool if that’s what it takes to educate their children. Lower income families deserve at least a similar range of options and expanding Vermont’s school choice tuitioning system is the way to give them those choices.

— The author is on the board of EdWatch Vermont, and the Ethan Allen Institute.  


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