By Pat McDonald
Pat McDonald producer and host of Vote for Vermont and Ben Kinsley, Executive Director of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity co-hosted a show on School Choice. Our guests were Brad Ferland and Asher Crispe, two individuals who have taken a personal interest in school choice in Vermont and have become active in the school choice discussion. The following is a summary of our conversation.
Vermont has had school choice since 1869. It’s been a long standing tradition to have tuitioning schools in Vermont. In the late 1800’s, Vermont changed from a 2500 school district system (school based) to a 250 town based system. In the 1960’s, we experienced the union high school movement. Throughout this entire time frame, Vermont maintained its school choice option. Currently there are 93 tuitioning districts out of 250.
There is no common definition of school choice, but in Vermont the term is used to describe the tuitioning of students from their home school district to another school that offers educational options the individual student may need to be successful. This only happens for districts that don’t operate a school for the grade levels being tuitioned.
The issue of school choice has risen to the forefront because of Act 46, an act relating to making amendments to education funding, education spending and education governance, which was passed in 2016. It was passed in an attempt to reduce administrative duplication in Vermont’s education system. It was the stated intent of the legislature that Act 46 would retain school choice, but an interpretation by the Vermont Board of Education worked against school choice. During the Act 46 debate in the Legislature, several legislators hosted a forum where many parents and students testified about what school choice meant to them and how they or their child blossomed before their eyes. It was clear from the testimony and from research that each child performs differently in different situations and learning environments. The idea of school choice is to find an educational environment that best matches the student’s needs and learning style.
There was a consensus among the show’s guests that Montpelier is operating from a top down perspective and has forgotten about one thing – the student and what is best for him/her. They also noted that Vermont’s per pupil costs are in the top five in the nation and that we are the fastest increasing among the states. Sadly, Act 46 is proving that there are few opportunities for cost savings and the cost per pupil continues to rise. It has proven that it is hard for schools to maintain a level budget since there are many variables the schools have no control over. Not what the sponsors of Act 46 envisioned.
Over the years there were several approaches to encourage consolidation and reduce property taxes: the first was the RED (Regional Education Districts), the second was the MUD Process (modified union districts) and now Act 46. There was one regional district formed under RED, one under MUD and 14 proposals for consolidation under Act 46, which led the Vermont Board of Education to proclaim victory and state that Act 46 is a success. But there are little or no cost savings, it will take a decade to find out if there are better outcomes and because of the merger rules there is a rush to the bottom with limited equity. Consider this example of five schools merging. If one school has one program say in science and one of the other schools has five science programs, the merger might result in all schools having one program to create equity and reduce options. IF one of those districts has school choice, it might be eliminated also in the name of creating equity.
The week of January 22 was School Choice Week. Several major events were planned for Wednesday, January 23 at the State House and Capitol Plaza. The message – one size does not fit all. The movement to save and hopefully expand school choice should be non-partisan. It is about our kids and their success. Act 46 can be fixed if we work collaboratively with one thing in mind – our children!
The comments reflected in this article are opinions stated by our guests. Any rebuttal are welcome and can be voices on the websites and Facebook pages of VFV and CFV. If you would like to see the show please go to vote802.com for a complete listing of Vote for Vermont shows or our YouTube channel for the shows done in partnership with Campaign for Vermont Prosperity.