Commentary: Modestly Expanding School Choice

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Here’s a capsule history of the fitful advance of parental choice in education in Vermont.

1869: The landmark Act 9 allows towns without secondary schools to tuition pupils to public and independent schools.

1990:   The 1869 tuition law is expanded to include grades 1-6.

1997:  In debate over what becomes Act 60, the education finance law, Sen. Jeb Spaulding (D) offers an amendment for full public and non-sectarian independent school choice, with a state-specified tuition amount following the student. It passes 18-12 with the support of Senate President Peter Shumlin (D). The House rejects it in conference.

1998: For the first time ever, the national Gallup poll shows support for school choice, 51-45%. A Vermont Public Radio poll asks “Should parents be allowed to use tax dollars to send their children to religious schools?” Yes 55% , No 34%, Undecided 12%.

1999: Gov. Howard Dean (D) strongly calls for public school choice in a message to the legislature.

2000: The legislature uncomfortably enacts Act 150, a highly restrictive high school student exchange experiment so far removed from real school choice that leading choice advocates decline to support it.

2001: The Ethan Allen Institute offers the first comprehensive parental choice and provider competition plan, called “Schoolchildren First.” (Sen. Shumlin joins a hastily union-arranged news conference to denounce it.)

2002: The Republican House passes a public-school-only choice bill (72-67). The Democratic majority buries it in the Senate. In June, the US Supreme Court rules that vouchers used by Cleveland parents at faith-based schools are constitutional.

2003: New Republican Governor Jim Douglas calls for expanding public school choice.

2004: Douglas renews his call. For the first time the State Board of Education unanimously endorses the concept of universal public school choice.

2010: Commissioner Armando Vilaseca launches a persistent attack on independent schools receiving tuition voucher payments.

2012: Act 129 repeals the failed public high school regional choice act of 2000, but replaces it with a similar measure that requires no payment of tuition by the sending school district.

2015: Forced consolidation (Act 46) and controversial State Board of Education rules threaten to end choice in tuition towns.

2016: State Board of Education launches a new attack on independent schools receiving tuition vouchers. Initially thwarted by the Interagency Committee on Rules, the battle continues.

A week before his election as governor, Phil Scott (R) says that “new rules proposed by the State Board of Education would undermine the rights of towns and parents, and weaken local and regional economies.”  Scott called on the State Board of Education “to withdraw and rewrite the rules to preserve and strengthen choices for parents.”

Now we’re up to 2017. The battle over the fate of tuition town choice in new unified districts has yet to be settled (except in the new NEK Choice District, composed of ten K-12 tuition towns.) Nor has the issue of the State Board’s imposition of deliberately crippling, and potentially lethal, requirements on independent schools that accept tuition students.

But a new bill sponsored by Reps. Vicki Strong Mike Hebert and thirty co-sponsors offers a modest step forward. (H. 450).

Their bill would amend Act 129 of 2012 to expand public school choice options to all students in grades K-12. It would “require the student’s school district of residence to permit the student…to transfer to any other public school in the State that provides an academic course, sports program, officially sponsored extracurricular activity, or service that is offered at the other public school but not at the public school of the student’s district of residence, and by requiring the other public school to accept the student (unless there is no physical capacity to accept the student).  The school district of residence would pay [an unspecified amount of] tuition to the receiving school district.”

This isn’t the full-bore parental choice that many have sought for so many years, but it pushes the door a little further open for kids to depart their local public school to an educational environment better suited to their needs, interests, and abilities.

- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

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