A group of lawmakers in Vermont is urging the state’s Board of Education (BOE) to correct a ruling that threatens school choice in the state’s 90-plus tuitioning towns.
State lawmakers sent a letter to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and State Board of Education Chair Stephen Morse in November, urging BOE to reverse a ruling that prevents many districts from keeping school choice as they merge with other districts.
“We are writing regarding Act 46, and the confusion that has been created surrounding its implementation,” the letter states.
The letter’s 14 signatories—11 representatives and three senators—say BOE’s decision, which was issued on September 15, violates the language and intent of Act 46. The decision said newly formed unified school districts can’t have school choice and public schools at the same grade levels.
Act 46 would create a multi-year process of three phases of incentives for communities to encourage districts to merge into the “most common governance models.” Through Act 46, in 2018 state officials would draft a final statewide design to realign unmerged districts into “more sustainable models of governance that meet State goals.” The purpose of Act 46 is to encourage first and then eventually require districts to merge into larger entities over the next four years in the hopes of better serving students and saving money.
Law Protects Choice
In the letter, the authors cite a section of Act 46 that says all merger transitions involving tuitioning districts must preserve the tuitioning option if a district so chooses: “Sec 4 (a) Tuition payment; protection. All governance transitions contemplated pursuant to this act shall preserve the ability of a district that, as of the effective date of this section, provides for the education of all resident students in one or more grades by paying tuition on the students’ behalf, to continue to provide education by paying tuition on behalf of all students in the grade or grades if it chooses to do so and shall not require the district to limit the options available to students if it ceases to exist as a discrete entity and realigns into a supervisory district or union school district.”
The signatories hope pointing to language in Act 46 will pressure BOE to change its decision.
BOE made its determination in September in response to pressure from supervisory unions, whose member districts wanted school choice within a newly formed union. In the case of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union—one of the cases that prompted the ruling—three of five member towns allow school choice for grades 9–12, but two of the five towns operate public schools at the same grade levels.
Argument Over Interpretation
BOE says choice districts must surrender choice in such situations, arguing since Vermont law prior to Act 46 didn’t allow choice and public schools to coexist at the same grade levels, the rule continues.
Critics of the ruling say Act 46 changed the former rule and allows choice and public schools to coexist at the same grade levels. The ruling has consequences for choice towns across Vermont that must merge with other districts under statewide consolidation.
Two attorneys, the House minority leader, the lieutenant governor, and others have denounced BOE’s decision. Two Democratic representatives from choice districts told Vermont Watchdog they want to clarify Act 46 to ensure the choice option stays for merging districts.
The dispute is of immediate interest to towns such as Elmore and Morristown. If both towns vote to form a new, unified school district and the BOE ruling stands, Elmore will lose school choice for grades 7–12.
‘We’re Not Happy with It’
The letter closes by asking Holcombe and Morse “to clarify that all communities that currently enjoy school choice may maintain that school choice regardless of their merger decisions.”
“I felt the need to say we’re not happy with it,” said state Rep. Job Tate (R-Mendon), who represents the choice towns of Mendon and Chittenden. “A lot of the people who voted for Act 46 feel their intent is not being honored.”
Bruce Parker ([email protected]) is a reporter for Watchdog.org, where an earlier version of this article appeared. Reprinted with permission.
Image by Max Klingensmith.