by John McClaughry
For years, indeed decades, Vermont’s public school Establishment has regularly found ways to put pressure on the non-sectarian independent schools that receive tuition for pupils from the 90 “tuition towns”. Why? Many within the Establishment believe that public money ought to be spent only on the (unionized) public schools, regardless of their value to the pupils. Some of them believe that parents are underqualified to make choices about their child’s education. Some of them dislike having competition.
There’s also money involved, especially when the school-age population is dropping. In 1997, when Act 60 was passed, pupils numbered 106,000. Today they are down to around 87,000. This means that public schools as a whole have accumulated underused capacity. In many cases this translates to small class sizes, a nation-leading low pupil to staff ratio (4.7:1), and very high cost per pupil – for K-12, now nearly $18,000 per year. That is 160% of the national average.
One idea for bringing in more pupil revenue to cover these stranded costs was simply to expand schooling from K-12 to PreK-12. That universal PreK idea was successfully sold between 2005 and 2014, when it was made mandatory. Another idea was to force tuition towns into unified districts, where their parents could choose only among that district’s public schools, and not independent schools (Act 46).
When the public school pupil shortage still remained, and threatened a reduced collection of union dues and agency fees, the Establishment began to try to cut off public support for tuition town pupils who chose independent (nonunionized) schools over public schools.
Last November the State Board of Education, spearheaded by the state’s foremost defender of mandatory public education against the menace of choices made by unqualified parents, Dr. William Mathis, launched a new attack. Mathis won approval of a resolution requiring, among other things, that independent schools that receive public tuition payments must offer special education services in all ten disability categories.
The four large “tuition academies” already do. The small independent schools usually can provide special education for pupils with “learning disabilities” (difficulty with reading, writing and math – 28% of the special ed population). But they can’t afford to hire the specialized expertise needed to deal with all 10 of the disability categories.
If they can’t comply, the Mathis resolution would, as intended, bar them from accepting any public money for any pupils from the 90 tuition towns. The Vermont School Boards Association, a dependable member of the Establishment coalition, is joining in support of that rule.
The obvious remedy is for Education Secretary Holcombe to put the brakes on the Board (always a touchy relationship), or legislatively override the Board, or barring that, to litigate the Board’s power to enforce the Mathis rule without explicit statutory support.
More constructively, the legislature should offer all parents of special ed pupils the choice of whatever school or program – public or independent – best serves their children’s needs.
This would be a Vermont clone of Florida’s McKay Scholarship program. This program, begun in 1999, now awards scholarship funds to 31,173 special ed (“IEP” and “504”) pupils in 1,363 independent schools. The scholarship amounts are the amounts the public schools would have spent on a participating child, up to the independent school’s tuition and fees. Since independent schools are usually less expensive than public schools, this would likely reduce overall special ed expenses.
As the (Vermont) Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value reported in 2009, “With every parent empowered to choose among public and independent schools and programs, parents are able to seek out curriculum options and instructional techniques that are best fitted to their children with special needs. Instead of being consigned to a public school special education program that is viewed by a school district as secondary to its main purpose and potentially the source of lots of trouble, parents could choose independent school programs whose principal purpose is helping special needs children.”
Interestingly, the McKay Scholarship program is so popular in Florida that its rapid expansion won the support of Democrats and Republicans, whites, blacks, and Hispanics in the legislature. It has had the effect of strengthening independent schools as well as satisfying parents.
If implemented, the Mathis resolution would seriously cripple the smaller independent schools, not to benefit special ed pupils, but to protect the overgrown public school monopoly against competitors that parents believe will better serve their children. We should be rewarding creativity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, not entrenched monopoly.
- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).