When North Bennington Graded School closed its doors and the Village School opened in the same building, it looked like a win-win.
The public school had been stuck in a downward spiral—decreases in student population led to declines in state funding that required cuts in programs the small Vermont community valued. The local board had little control over the school, and there were rumors the state might consolidate the school with another town’s.
Local residents came together, closing the public school entirely and opening the Village School, a town academy operating under the state’s town tuitioning program, in which the state effectively pays tuition instead of funding schools and programs.
The option may not be available to other Vermont communities facing similar challenges.
Within the state Board of Education, Vermont Agency of Education, and legislature, some say the conversion abuses the tuitioning law and there’s no guarantee independent schools will provide local students with the education they deserve.
State Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan (D-Burlington), who chairs the education committee, proposed a bill last year that would have prevented such conversions. The bill failed, but a study committee will report its findings in mid-December, just in time for the legislative session beginning in January.
Independent school advocates are gearing up for an uphill battle.
Funding Follows Students
Although most school-choice programs—vouchers, for example—date to the 1990s, Vermont’s town tuitioning program began in 1869, the year Harriet Tubman got married and Leo Tolstoy published “War and Peace.”
Today the population of Vermont is smaller than Detroit’s, and the state never has been a metropolis. In some towns, it didn’t make sense to operate a school because there weren’t many school-age kids.
Nevertheless, the state had to provide every child a free education, so it began tying education funding to students instead of schools.
If a town doesn’t have a public school, public funding follows the student to any public or independent school—including out-of-state and out of country—as long as the school isn’t faith-based. (Faith-based schools were permitted until 1961; three state Supreme Court cases later, they’re not.)
Some independent schools, called town academies, serve students the way a public school would. If a town agrees to make up the difference between tuition and baseline state funding, the school guarantees admission to local students.
Some Vermont communities didn’t build public schools because they already had a town academy. The oldest, Thetford Academy, has been operating since 1819.
Pushback from the State
Other schools have been considering conversions, says Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association.
“It always is very small districts where they’re feeling threatened, either by high costs or threats of consolidation, for example, but nobody has made any formal proposals at this point,” he said.
There’s an ongoing conversation about the high cost of education in Vermont and alternatives to the existing model, as residents feel the stress on their property taxes, Moore said.
Many in the state Education Department and legislature expressed displeasure with North Bennington’s conversion and are working to prevent other schools from following suit.
“I would still love to find a way to make it harder for a public school to do this. We have not yet found a way. I plan on maybe having a conversation with the attorney general to see if there is some way in which we could just make it more difficult or absolutely not allow,” said Donovan.
Last year, Donovan sponsored a bill that would have made independent conversion impossible for public schools. The bill failed.
Donovan says she opposes these conversions because independent schools may not offer everything students deserve, particularly special-needs students.
“We, as a community, all of us, regardless of whether we have children, we have a civic responsibility to offer our children a very, very excellent education,” she said.
She said she didn’t see any advantage to converting a public school, and any reform should be done by improving the existing public system.
Since Donovan’s bill didn’t pass, a summer study committee was commissioned to look into the financial impact of the state funding independent schools and the consequences of an independent school board not being publicly elected.
Robert Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, called the committee a “farce.”
The study committee was unable to gather enough information to conclude anything, and Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca will write the report, said Julie Henson, who sat on the committee and represented independent schools.
“There was no vote-taking on the summer committee, no recommendations made, and we never fully discussed the pros and cons of the things we were tasked to look at,” Henson said.
Vilaseca and Roper said there are strong feelings in the state education administration that independent schools shouldn’t get public funds. They expect the summer report to hit the fan in January when the legislative session begins.
“Every time you talk about school choice and see ‘Waiting for Superman,’ it’s always about an inner city school that is imploding and totally dysfunctional,” Roper said. “The kids are failing, there’s metal detectors and drugs rampant, and we need school choice to fix that. That gains the most sympathy, but school choice works in the suburbs [too]. Vermont is where it is.”