Educational Choice: It Really Works in Vermont

Published March 22, 1995

Since 1869, Vermont has had an educational choice system for students from towns that do not maintain their own public schools or belong to union school districts. In 74 of Vermont’s 246 towns, representing about 18 percent of the state’s high school population, the town school board pays tuition for high school pupils to attend any public or approved private school their parents choose.

Among the in-state approved high schools are four venerable academies, three relatively new “ski academies,” and one nonpublic school managed by a board appointed by the local government. Among the out-of-state approved high schools are public high schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York, and a large number of private schools such as St. Paul’s School, Northfield-Mt. Herman, and Phillips Andover. Until 1961, tuition payments were even made to Vermont’s three Catholic high schools, but this practice was held to be constitutionally impermissible in a decision of the Vermont state Supreme Court.

The school board of a so-called “tuition town” is required by law to pay the full tuition charged by a public school; it must pay an independent school an amount equal to the average tuition charge of the state’s union high school districts ($5,903 in school year 1993-94). If the tuition at the selected independent school is greater than this amount, the school district may pay the larger amount, but it is not required to do so. The parents must cover any difference.

Twelve small Vermont towns do not offer grades 1-6. As of 1990 (Act 271), their school boards are allowed to tuition pupils to nonresidential independent elementary schools. Parents do not have a right under Act 271 to have tuition paid at the school of their choice, but it would be highly unusual for a school board to refuse a parent’s request if the town maintained no school of its own. There are six non- parochial, non-special ed elementary schools in the State, and these are not necessarily within commuting distance of the tuition towns.

The full Vermont choice system is best illustrated by the Town of Kirby, which operates no schools of its own. For the 1992-93 school year Kirby sent 41 elementary school pupils to four nearby public schools, and three to the independent Riverside School. It sent 11 junior high pupils to three public schools, and two students to Riverside. It sent all 26 high school students to two independent academies in St. Johnsbury and Lyndonville.

In recent years, Kirby has even tuitioned two of its high school students to exchange programs in France and Finland. The Town paid approximately $4,300 ($1,000 less than the then-prevailing tuition at the larger local academy), and the program provided room and board, tuition, and round trip airfare for the pupils.

Educational choice works in Vermont–without fanfare, and without the horrors that choice opponents nationwide would have us expect. Choice is the wave of the future . . . and an important part of the past in the Green Mountain State.

Former Vermont State Senator John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He authored Act 271 of 1990.