(Host) The debate over school choice in public education is a hot topic in many states. But in much of Vermont, school choice is already a reality.
Ninety Vermont towns have no middle or high school of their own. So students in those communities get tuition vouchers and can choose which public or independent school they want to attend.
But some lawmakers say the system gives private schools an unfair advantage - and they're trying to change that, as VPR's Susan Keese reports.
(Host) The kindergarten-through-12th grade public school in Royalton has been struggling with rising costs and shrinking student numbers - a common problem in Vermont. Surrounding towns, such as Tunbridge and Sharon have no high schools. They provide tuition vouchers for students to use at whatever secondary school they choose to attend. Royalton School Board Chair Tom Honigford says his public school would love to have those students and their tuition money. But the students tend to choose the nearby Sharon Academy and other private schools instead.
FACT: The communities of Sharon and Tunbridge tuition 163 students. Of those 163 children, slightly over half choose public schools. Those public schools include South Royalton (Royalton), Woodstock Union, Hartford, and Hanover, schools that are significantly more distant than South Royalton or The Sharon Academy and Thetford Academy. Honigford assumes if The Sharon Academy disappeared, South Royalton would receive the students from Tunbridge and Sharon who don’t currently attend South Royalton. This may not be a fair assumption. Because parents in Tunbridge and Sharon have school choice, they have shown a preference for schools other than South Royalton H.S.
(Honigford) "As we needed to attract more students to the building, we became aware that some students have the perception that independent schools are better schools. And because of the perception they choose to go there."
FACT: Honigford is more focused on money than on the needs of students in nearby school choice towns. He said this explicitly last week in the Senate Education Committee on February 9th, "We need those dollars in the public schools."
(Keese) Honigford admits the independent schools and academies often have higher test scores. But he says it's not fair to compare private and public schools.
(Honigford) "Independent schools can pick and choose who they want as students. They tend to not have very many, if any, special ed students... And as you get into it more, you realize there are a lot of other things going on."
FACT: Independent schools accepting publicly tuitioned students are required to comply with federal statues that implement 504 plans ( The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights anti-discrimination act prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires that all programs and activities be accessible to everyone.) The ability to bill home districts to serve students with IEPs depends upon a school’s certification in each of the 14 special education categories. Some independent schools are certified in some or all categories, and some are not able to serve children with IEPs. However, many independent schools provide special ed even though they are not government-certified for billing purposes. Fully one-third of independent schools serve only seriously disabled children on IEPs.
(Keese) A pair of bills in the Legislature would "level the playing field," as one lawmaker puts it.
Windsor Senator Dick McCormack is a sponsor.
FACT: The amount of each tuition voucher that can follow a child to an independent school is limited to the state average tuition rate of union schools. The average secondary student in Vermont costs $16,000 to educate in a public school. The voucher size is $12,000. This $4000 difference is not accidental - state rules have allowed it to go on this way for years. Independent schools now are trying to correct the problem. Current funding is not a level playing field, particularly for those independent schools who are committed to charging only the state average.
(McCormack) "The law would be that,.... .... in order to receive public funding, taxpayer dollars, a school would have to abide by all the various rules and requirements that are imposed on our local public schools."
FACT: While the bill would impose these new requirements, it also reaffirms that the unequal tuition arrangement that has been in place for years should continue as is. In other words, the bill would tell independent schools to do more, with less money. Independent schools don't see this as "leveling the playing field."
(Keese) Those rules include teacher licensing requirements, the federal No Child Left Behind Law, and state provisions that impose penalties on public schools for spending more per student than the state average.
The House bill would also forbid state tuition money to be spent on schools outside the state.Sponsors say that amounts to five or six million dollars annually.
FACT: H.170 would still allow students to be tuitioned to those out-of-state schools who are part of interstate compacts and tuitioning arrangements: Granville, NY, Salem, NY, Orford, NH and Hanover, NH. It would also allow special education students to be placed out-of-state. It is not entirely clear how much of the current out-of-state tuition dollars are spent at schools that would be excepted from the bill. We hope to have clarification from the Department of Education soon.
Mark Oettinger is general counsel for the Vermont Department of Education. He says some independent schools do very well with students with disabilities. Others don't even admit those students.
FACT: Oettinger testified before the Senate Education committee that he is unaware of any SPED based complaints brought against an independent school during his five years with the DOE.
(Oettinger) "Many of our independent schools are approved for all 14 disability categories, some are approved for none. There is no obligation under current Vermont law that independent schools be approved for all categories."
FACT: Vermont independent schools range in size from 4 students to 900 students. “Approved Independent Schools” serve general student populations, special needs populations, and include the accelerated academic VAST program at Vermont Technical College, Vermont’s ski academies, and religious schools.
(Keese) Oettinger thinks the proposed bills would defeat the advantages of alternative schools.
(Oettinger) "They have certain degrees of flexibility. They can specialize more. They're subject to a fairly stringent regulation from the Department of Education, but the nature of that regulation is essentially different..."
FACT: H.170 would disallow NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation for Independent Schools. NEASC currently certifies over 600 independent and 2000 public education institutions in New England. The Department of Education currently accepts the NEASC accreditation process and according to recent testimony, does not support doing away with NEASC approval. Interestingly, H.169 which is also sponsored by Representative Anne Mook, would require Vermont Technical Centers to undergo NEASC reviews and encourages them to seek enrollments from outside of Vermont.
(Keese) Senator Dick McCormack says letting private schools "cherry-pick" the easiest and least expensive students to educate, while leaving the rest to public schools, could lead to a downward spiral for public education.
FACT: Though the "cherry-pick argument" is regularly refuted by independent schools, anti-independent school people cling to this false argument. Vermont’s town academies and tuitioning statutes have been around for 140 years, our town academies pre-date our public secondary schools. Independent schools struggle with Vermont’s declining student numbers, just as public schools do (in fact more so, because independents have no guaranteed enrollment) and there is no evidence of “cherry picking.” New independent schools serving general education populations are extremely rare. Over the past 140 years the system has achieved a balance that serves students well. According to the Department of Education, Vermont’s public school students are among the highest performing in the nation.
For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.