Legislation advancing slowly in Vermont would eliminate the school choice option that has been in place since 1869. Ninety of Vermont’s towns, known as tuition towns, do not have a local school or high school. Under existing law those students may attend any school they choose—private, public, in the state, or outside it.
At least three bills in Vermont’s state legislature—H. 755, H. 782, and S. 252—would alter how the state organizes and finances its schools.
H. 782, which has the backing of Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, would end the tuition town designation and appears likely to pass. H.755 and S. 252 would consolidate schools from more than 200 districts to fewer than 16.
Towns Would Lose Choices
Dubbed the “Voluntary School District Merger Incentive Program,” H. 782 would require every town to decide whether to participate in the new Unified Union School District (UUSD). Once a school board approved, towns without schools would designate a public or independent school nearby. Students would then be forced to leave their current school of choice and required to attend the newly designated school.
“If they join a UUSD, they will have a school—not in their town but with a district—losing choice,” said John McClaughry, acting president of the Ethan Allen Institute in Concord. The institute recently published McClaughry’s analysis of the legislation, “School Regionalization and Parental Choice.”
“A major incentive to UUSD formation is a tax rate reduction bonus that the new district can earn by reducing or only modestly increasing its costs per pupil,” McClaughry explained. “Other incentives relate to capital debt, repayment of the state in case of sale of a state-financed facility, and small school grants.”
Commissioner Claims Cost Savings
“Consolidating Vermont’s 281 school districts into 50 or fewer governance entities estimates a saving of $15 million to $17 million in fiscal year 2012,” Commissioner Vilaseca told the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus in March. “Increasing staff-to-student ratios from the current 4.55-to-1 to 4.95-to-1 for fiscal year 2012, will generate $46 million in annual savings.”
The Vermont State Auditor is scheduled to submit a report analyzing the fiscal expenditures of current the public school system on June 1.
“Are there statewide savings? Are there shared services? What are the impediments, having school boards where decisions have to be vetted. Is there over-duplication?” asked State Auditor Thomas Salmon. The agency is focused solely on “fact based information that helps make people better decisions We are a small state; we have to make changes that are preparing people for the real world.”
Parents overwhelmingly prefer the current system. A 2009 survey of Vermont parents conducted by the Foundation for Educational Choice (formerly the Friedman Foundation), found 64 percent favored keeping tuition towns, 12 percent preferred regular public schools instead of private or charter schools, and 60 percent favored establishing school vouchers.
“This is regressive legislation that will create a giant step backward for Vermont’s educational system,” said Roberto Abele, a resident of a tuition town, at a House Education Committee hearing.
Consolidation efforts have been in the works for quite some time, McClaughry notes. “For 60 years the education commissioner has been trying to reduce the number of school districts from what is now 290 to eventually 12,” he said.
‘Vermont Is a Choice State’
S. 252, by Sen. Robert Hartwell (D-Bennington), did not pass through its Senate committee, but Hartwell says he plans to keep the discussion going. The bill would have required the commissioner of education to restructure the state’s school system into no more than 16 supervisory unions.
“Our state is small, only 600,025 people,” said Hartwell. “We’ve got some schools with only 10, 12, or 15 students in them.”
Hartwell argues consolidation is a cost-saver.
“Consolidating schools into fewer districts would allow districts to share services, reduce administrative and other costs, and improve educational opportunities for students,” he said.
But Hartwell also expressed support for preserving choice. “Vermont is a choice state, and choice is going to have to be protected along with independent schools. We have a lot of them, and they are very good,” said Hartwell.
Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is education policy analyst for the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.
Ethan Allen Institute: “School Regionalization and Parental Choice”; http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/27610/School_Regionalization_and_Parental_Choice.html