Vermont: Taking the pesky public out of public education

Vermont: Taking the pesky public out of public education

For those who think school vouchers are a new idea, take a look at Vermont–a state that, for more than 100 years, has had a voucher system in about 90 of the state’s towns, or one-third of its school districts (most school districts in Vermont are individual town districts). The reason is simple: some of these towns are so small, it never made sense to go to the expense of building an actual school. Instead, pragmatic New Englanders viewed public education as the public’s responsibility to educate their children wherever their needs are best met. So, they “tuition” the students in these towns to other schools, independent and public alike.

For centuries, it’s worked well, with even religious schools included in the mix for most of the tuition town system’s existence. Several of the state’s private academies grew and thrived due to the tuition town system, and many towns take creative approaches to transportation issues. When I was a school choice advocate in Vermont, I wrote a paper for the Cato Institute about this system.

Although most tuition towns have existed since the first enabling statute was passed in the 1800s, state law does allow for towns to close their own public schools and turn themselves into a tuition town. In 1998, as the result of what residents saw as adverse education property tax changes, the town of Winhall did just that, closing their public school, becoming a tuition town, and opening a private school on the premises of the old public one.

Most recently, the town of North Bennington did the same thing. Their motivation was different. They closed their public school….in order to save it. Because Vermont’s student population has been steadily declining, a movement to consolidate schools has started. But this approach is top-down, directed from the state level, and the residents of North Bennington wanted to control their own education destiny. They took their public responsibility to educate their children seriously. So, they began the arduous multi-year journey of turning themselves into a tuition town and their public school into a private one.

The process calls for thoughtful consideration, not rash judgment. Four votes are required. Roughly, they are:

  • a vote to close the public school
  • a vote to tuition students to public and private schools of their choice
  • a vote to lease the public school building to a new independent school
  • a vote to approve tuitioning amounts

In North Bennington’s case, there was an extra vote because the state board of education delayed so long in certifying the new independent school (only certified schools can receive public tuition money), that a deadline for authorizing the new process wasn’t met. The local school board also conducted a vote to move the process forward. All these votes required the usual public postings and open debate.  So, there was ample opportunity for the public to get involved in this big education question, to vote with their ballots after weighing in with their voices.

In a blue, blue state like Vermont, you’d think that this kind of citizen action at the local level would be celebrated.  It’s an awful lot of democracy!

The state is dominated by left-leaning politics, though. Its legislature is so Democratic that only seven Republicans sit in the 30-member state Senate. The legislative district of Bennington itself counts seven Democrats and only two Republicans as its House representatives; both its state senators are Dems.

But despite the fact that Democratic Bennington voted not once, not twice, but numerous times at the citizen and school board level for this more expansive view of public schooling — to define it as the public’s responsibility to educate all kids where their needs are best met — Democrats in the state and public school totalitarians at the education bureaucracy level cannot tolerate it when the public wants to do something they don’t like.

So a movement started to squash the possibility of any more North Benningtons. A Burlington representative, Johannah Donovan, introduced a bill that would outlaw the closure of public schools…by the public locals who supposedly run them. This didn’t make it past the full legislature, but that could have been because of some absentees on the day of the votes. Instead, a study committee formed, headed by then-Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca. It met three times. Secretary Vilaseca didn’t attend the meeting at which representatives from Winhall and North Bennington did presentations on their towns’ actions. But he went ahead and wrote up the report by himself which, not surprisingly, recommends this sort of thing shouldn’t happen again.

Where will this all lead? Robert Roper, head of Vermont’s free market think thank, the Ethan Allen Institute, thinks the legislature really wants to “get rid” of the possibility of more North Benningtons in the state.

“They’re working very hard to kill it,” he said in an interview this week. “They have the votes. The only question is whether tuition towns will rise up to stop them.”

In the past, when tuition towns have been threatened, the independent schools that serve them have helped make the case for why the tuition town system should be preserved. But this legislative effort is to keep the system from expanding. It remains to be seen whether the schools will muster the resources to fight that effort.

If they don’t, they’re letting a process that uses an abundance of democracy–multiple votes, forums, considerations–be replaced by a one-size-fits-all approach to local public education.

Ironically, liberal education expert Diane Ravitch was on MSNBC’s Ed Schultz Show over a week ago decrying this lack of democratic process in the closure of schools in New Jersey. On that show, she spoke against how New Jersey was handling the privatization of schools –turning them into private charter institutions — saying:

“The privatization is going through in a bullying fashion; the local community was not being consulted; they don’t have a voice.”

She specifically pointed to legislation in New Jersey that would force local communities to be involved in this privatization process, at least at a board level.

“Don’t close any schools without the support of the community board,” Ravitch told a yes-nodding Ed Schultz.

Good luck with that, though, if the communities vote against what the liberal education establishment wants them to do. In North Bennington, Vermont, the local community board voted for privatization, the local community’s citizens voted for it, too — multiple times.

Public education totalitarians, however, aren’t interested in that brand of democracy. In fact, in Vermont, they’re very comfortable with bullying local communities who don’t vote their way in privatization debates.

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.


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