State Education Board to lobby for school choice again

As pitches go, it’s a hard sell. But Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate will again go to the Legislature when it convenes in January to propose that the state expand school choice — a proposition that flopped decisively last time around.

This time, Cate and the Vermont Education Board are considering a proposal that calls for expansion of public school choice at the high school level only; a broader bill failed to pass in the most recent session.

“The board has asked me to take school choice back, and so we will be doing so,” Cate said.

The board will make its final decision on the details of a proposed bill later this month.

The vast majority of Vermont schoolchildren attend a public school and are assigned to that school on the basis of their address. The tradition prevails nationally, but across the country, supporters of school choice have made significant headway over the last 15 years with programs that allow parents to choose between public schools and, in some cases, to pay private school tuition with public funds.

Forty states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws; 15 states guarantee public school choice within districts or between districts; and seven states have taxpayer-funded scholarships to help students attend private schools, according to a 2006 study by The Heritage Foundation.

Vermont has not jumped into this trend. The state has no charter school legislation and recent efforts to expand choice have mostly failed at the Legislature. The exception is a 2002 public high school choice program that allows a small number of students to switch schools. In the 2005-2006 school year, 254 students exercised choice in this program.

The failure of recent choice initiatives contrasts with the enduring popularity of a significant choice program that has been in place in Vermont since at least 1869. This program, known as tuitioning, is much older but not dissimilar to some of the voucher programs operating outside Vermont.

The Vermont law allows parents to use public tax dollars to pay for the education of their children at any public, private or non-religious school they choose if there is no public school within the student’s town of residence.

About 130 Vermont towns tuition a total of 8,040 students in grades kindergarten to 12. Forty-five percent attend private schools, including boarding schools in and out of state; and 55 percent attend public schools, according to a 2004 report.

Allowable tuition payments are calculated each year by the state and generally approximate average per-pupil spending in Vermont public schools, which in 2004-2005 was $11,608. Private school tuition over the allowable tuition rate is the responsibility of the family.

Cate experienced the tuitioning system when he was growing up in small-town Vermont and attended Montpelier High School as a tuitioned student. He supports statewide public school choice from kindergarten to 12th grade but found few lawmakers were willing to get on board with the proposal last year.

“Apparently the majority of the legislators don’t support that idea,” Cate said. “A lot of people, I think, worry about the effect on small schools and the like, at least that’s what I’ve heard expressed. To be honest I don’t think there would be any significant adverse effect but I understand where they are coming from.”
High school choice

Emma Harvey, a 17-year-old Burlington resident, has attended South Burlington High School since ninth grade under Act 150, Vermont’s high school choice law. She is a senior at the school, which she chose in part for social reasons.

“I just felt in Burlington I wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with a lot of the people,” she said. “I just felt it was time to move on and meet new people. Then I came here and realized it was kind of the same thing. But I guess that’s being a teenager.”

Harvey thinks she would have received the same quality of education had she attended Burlington High School and says she considered switching to that school as she rekindled friendships with former Burlington classmates. Ultimately, she decided to stay at South Burlington and is happy with the decision.

Vermont’s school choice programs should expand, she said. “I think that would be great. For me, it worked out.”

South Burlington has one of the most active choice programs in the state. This year the school has three partner schools: Burlington, Essex and Champlain Valley Union high schools. Up to 25 students from those school districts can come to South Burlington High School.

The program often comes close to filling up, but there are usually slots for all who want to participate, said Patrick Burke, South Burlington High School principal. The majority of the participants are students who were already attending South Burlington public schools and were moving out of the district but did not want to switch schools, Burke said.

A few students come for a sport — either because it isn’t offered at their home district school or because they think it might be easier to make a team at SBHS. Few of the queries about the program center on academics, Burke said, and he rarely hears: “Tell me how many AP classes you have,” he said.
Legislative fate?

Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-NEA, the union that represents 11,000 public schoolteachers and aides, said he could not comment on any choice bill until the specifics are proposed.

The union opposes private school vouchers and use of public funds for tuition at religious schools. The union has also been skeptical about expanding public school choice to the K-8 level, partly out of concern that it could drain small schools of pupils and public funding, which is tied to enrollment.

The union supports the public high school choice law, Cook said. “We’ve supported the current public high school choice law. It works well.”

Advocates for school choice in Vermont say the Vermont-NEA teachers union has successfully lobbied against choice proposals at the Democrat-dominated Legislature.

“The majority party here is heavily beholden to the teachers union and the teachers union is completely allergic to any real idea of parental choice in education,” said John McClaughry, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a think tank in Concord.

Rob Roper, state director for Freedom Works Vermont, a Stowe organization that advocates for choice, also says the Vermont-NEA has played a key role in opposing choice.

“I don’t think that the NEA really has very much interest in pursuing a choice agenda, and they are a very powerful special-interest group,” Roper said. “That’s the long and the short of it.”

Both men said Vermont differs from states that have adopted charter and voucher programs in another key way: There has been no public groundswell for choice.

“Our schools, by and large, are not bad,” said McClaughry. “We can always think we should get more for the money, but there are no glaring examples of schools that are the equivalent of Cleveland or Milwaukee.”

He and Roper will continue to call for choice but doubt much will happen at the Legislature in the coming session, even with the Board of Education’s promotion.

“They’ve pushed it a couple of times and it’s like pushing a string,” McClaughry said. “The other end isn’t moving forward very fast, to put it mildly.”

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