Vermont Governor Pushes Public School Choice

Published March 1, 2004

Any Vermont child should be able to attend any of the state’s public schools, said Vermont Governor James H. Douglas (R) in his State of the State address in Montpelier on January 6. The Republican governor’s support for public school choice was echoed later in the month by the State Board of Education, which took two votes and heard public testimony on the subject.

While acknowledging the support Vermonters give to education and the efforts of many dedicated teachers and administrators, Douglas said equality of educational opportunity continued to escape too many children. He proposed a statewide K-12 public school choice program where a portion of the state’s annual $6,800 per-pupil block grant would follow the child from school to school.

“The time has come to find an alternative that gives every child, regardless of residence or economic background, a truly equal opportunity for a first-class public education that meets his or her needs,” declared Douglas. “School choice should not be a privilege reserved only for the wealthy. It should be the right of all Vermonters.”

Education Commissioner Richard Cate, who was recently hired by the state Board of Education, said he wasn’t ready to endorse the governor’s proposal until his concerns about the schools and students left behind had been addressed. Spokesman Jason Gibbs told the Rutland Herald that Douglas was willing to discuss the issue but also said it’s “important to remember that the funding is for the child and should go where the student wants to go.”

On January 15, seven of the nine state Board of Education members voted informally to endorse school choice prior to a formal meeting on January 20 with input from the public.

“One of the benefits of [educational choice] is it gives parents and students the right to choose and increases parental involvement in the child’s education,” said Board Chairwoman Diane Mueller.

At its January 20 meeting, the Board heard testimony on school choice from about 30 members of the public, with the overwhelming majority speaking in favor of school choice. John McClaughry, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, and Libby Sternberg, who heads Vermonters for Better Education, were among those who testified.

McClaughry reminded board members that Vermont had been a national leader in parental choice in education since 1869 when the tuitioning program was launched. Some 6,000 students in 90 tuition towns now choose among a variety of public and nonsectarian independent schools. The tuitioning system is extremely popular, administratively workable, and well-understood, noted McClaughry. He argued it should be extended to benefit all Vermont children.

“Public school choice does not go far enough to meet all parents’ and children’s needs, especially in offering moral and religious standards,” said McClaughry. “But it is an important beginning. It affirms that the purpose of spending $1 billion of our taxpayers’ dollars is to educate our children, not to protect and accommodate government educational monopolies that may or may not offer what parents and children want.”

Those views were echoed by South Burlington resident Sheldon Katz, who said, “Public school choice does not provide the diversity necessary to make choice effective.”

After the testimony and some discussion, seven of nine board members approved the following resolution:

“The State Board of Education supports the general concept of public school choice. We encourage the legislature to ensure that the development of any new system of enhanced choice address the needs of all students. The State Board plans to be an active participant in this process.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].