Report: School Choice Can Save Vermont Taxpayers Money

Published December 23, 2009

School choice could save the state of Vermont $80 million to $300 million per year, according to a study conducted by the Ethan Allen Institute, a public policy research and education group based in Concord.

The report, released December 1, was compiled by the institute’s Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value to find out how Vermonters can achieve comparable or better education for children while flattening the spending curve.

The commission, which spent six months researching the issue, consists of 15 former superintendents, principals, school board members, state Senate education committee members, and doctors of education and is chaired by Chris Robbins, a former member of the Vermont Board of Education.

In his foreword, Robbins writes, “The fundamental premise of this report is that a policy of creating an ever-enlarging ‘system,’ directed from the top down, populated with thousands of teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats, controlling the annual expenditure of [1.45 billion taxpayer dollars], jealously protective of the benefits enjoyed by the people employed in the ‘system,’ and dismissive of the abilities and preferences of parents and children, is a policy headed off in a totally wrong direction.”

Huge Budget Deficits

“It’s an important time for the report,” said John McClaughry, founder and vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute and a former state senator. “This is the first report in my 40 years in Vermont politics that says we can save taxpayers dollars by going to a competition and choice model. And we are facing $470 million in deficits 2011-2014.” The report makes several recommendations, including giving tuition certificates to students instead of payments to schools. It advocates creating charter schools and virtual schools, and supports tax credit scholarship programs and allowing voters to create their own education models in “freedom districts.”

At press time, state legislators had yet to respond to the report as the legislature was not in session. McClaughry said the commission would present it to them by the end of January.

“They all have the report,” he says, “but I haven’t seen any of them interviewed as of yet.”

Strong Reactions

An opinion piece McClaughry wrote has run in seven of the state’s nine daily papers, and attracted some negative attention along the way.

“The left-wing Rutland Herald ran an editorial calling us racists because our Ph.D. economist compared Vermont test scores with U.S. white test scores—we have 2.5 percent nonwhite students [in Vermont],” he explained.

The report is a good first step toward educating legislators about the value of school choice, but it will take a long time to change policy, McClaughry says. “It’s a long haul here—there is no market education advocacy group,” he said. “We don’t have downtrodden inner-city people to make good photo ops. My hope is that the prospect of saving taxpayers money will open policymakers’ eyes to new possibilities.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.