Vouchers Proposed to Resolve Crisis in Vermont

Published October 1, 2001

With Vermont’s four-year-old educational funding mechanism fast approaching crisis stage, the Ethan Allen Institute has proposed a statewide voucher system that would restore the authority of parents over their child’s school, meet the obligations of the 1996 state Supreme Court ruling on equal educational opportunity, and avert the centralization of the state’s 254 predominantly rural school districts into a single statewide school bureaucracy.

Although the education provision of the Vermont Constitution states simply that “. . . a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town . . .,” the state Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that these dozen words created an individual right to “a substantially equal opportunity to have access to similar educational revenues.”

In response, the 1997 general assembly passed the “Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1997,” known as Act 60. It centralized educational power in the State Board of Education, created a new statewide property tax to fund a basic per-pupil grant that amounted to $5,479 in 2001, and allowed towns to levy higher local taxes for their schools only if the additional funds were “shared” with other districts.

As Act 60 took effect on the citizens of the Green Mountain State, intense disputes arose regarding state “equalization” of local property valuations. Also, instead of “sharing” up to 70 percent of their additional taxes with the state, towns that wanted to spend more than the basic grant per student chose instead to donate tax-deductible contributions to local education foundations.

Ethan Allen Institute President John McClaughry, a former state senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate, announced details of the EAI voucher proposal on July 17 in a 32-page study called “Schoolchildren First.”

Under the plan, funding for public education would be roughly $841 million, or about the same as it is now, with almost 70 percent of this raised through a uniform statewide property tax. The remaining 30 percent would come from the state’s General Fund.

But the focus of McClaughry’s plan is using the $841 million to fund school children rather than schools, and to empower Vermont parents to choose the education they believe is best for their children. His model is the 90 Vermont towns where, for 132 years, education funding has followed the child, and parents are given a choice of schools for their children to attend. In those towns, parents can send their children to any public or independent school, in or out of the state, except for sectarian schools.

The Schoolchildren First proposal would expand that educational choice system to all parents and all children in all towns of the state. It also would create tax credits for charitable donations to organizations that would grant scholarships to students who wished to attend a religious school.

“The great majority of pupils will likely continue to attend schools operated by an elected local school board,” noted McClaughry, since they have the advantage of tradition, facilities, and community identification. “The great difference will be that they will no longer be able to count on the coercive arm of government to deliver pupils to their door.”

McClaughry points to the province of New Brunswick in Canada as a likely model of what would happen to Vermont if Act 60 is retained: After the provincial Ministry of Education took charge of allocating education funding there, all local school boards eventually were abolished.

For more information . . .

The July 2001 report, “Schoolchildren First,” is available from the Web site of the Ethan Allen Institute at www.ethanallen.org.