The most pressing education policy issue of 2016 is protecting parental choice in education against extermination by Act 46.
For years the prevailing view in Vermont’s majority party – the Democratic Party – has been to increase state control of local public education, create larger administrative units more closely under the thumb of the State Board and Agency of Education, mandate universal pre-K (to counter the loss of K-12 pupils), increase pay and benefits for teachers and staff, shift as much school financing as possible to the income tax, require private early education operators to unionize, and reduce the opportunities for parents to choose what education is best for their children.
These policies are aggressively promoted by the Vermont-NEA teachers union which, on matters of interest to it, can fairly be said to own the majority party.
In November 2014 the voters demanded relief from ever-growing school property taxes. Governor Shumlin, Speaker Shap Smith, and the majority party responded with a non-solution: forced consolidation of local districts into unified mega-districts.
This has been the recurring goal of the education establishment since Gov. Phil Hoff promoted the idea in 1964. Despite feeble claims of “achieving operating efficiencies”, there is little reason to believe that the proliferating mega-district bureaucracy, plus higher transportation costs, won’t end up costing as much or more than what it replaced.
But one thing that consolidation into unified districts will certainly achieve – if not resisted – is the extermination of parental choice now enjoyed in 93 tuition towns. The agent of destruction is Act 46, the consolidation bill pushed through by Speaker Smith and his Education Committee chairman David Sharpe.
Here’s why. Suppose that in order to grab five years of property tax incentives, districts A, B, and C agree to consolidate into Unified District U. District A is K-12. District B is K-8. District C, the smallest, operates no school and is a tuition town for all grades.
If District C goes into District U, it will have to give up parental choice, and its pupils will have to attend the District U public schools formerly operated by District A and B. So ruled the State Board of Education last September. This has already happened with two tuition towns, Westford and Elmore.
Suppose the voters and parents of District C reject the tax incentives, stand up to the pressure from Montpelier, and stay independent. Act 46 essentially puts them on death row. By 2019 the Board and Secretary of Education will assign them to a unified district or an “alternative governance structure”. To her credit, Secretary Holcombe has expressed a willingness to consider a unified “side by side” district of all-choice towns. But no such creature has ever been created, and Holcombe may not be Secretary when the day of decision comes.
Supporters of Act 46 point to language in that law intended to protect school choice where it exists. No, they say, Act 46 won’t force a district to give up choice! But if the tuition town district takes the bait to merge, it then vanishes. The likely result will be loss of choice for its pupils.
Whether Act 46 was deliberately drafted to obscure its likely effect of destroying choice remains a matter of controversy. Chairman Sharpe assured legislators that Act 46 does not take away tuition town choice. Maybe he really believed that, maybe not.
But now legislators of both parties who took Sharpe’s word that Act 46 protects choice have come to realize that that’s not good enough. The legislature badly needs to enact “choice rescue” language that allows pupils in tuition towns to retain choice when they merge into a unified district.
Sens. Rich Westman, Brian Collamore and Peg Flory have introduced a bill (S.249) that protects choice for tuition town pupils in newly merged districts, and actually extends it to the pupils entering the unified district from K-8 and K-12 districts.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann and twelve cosponsors, including two Democrats, have introduced a similar bill (H.579) in the House. Both bills apply only to unified districts created under Act 46 on or before mid-2019.
Parental choice is a good for parents and children. It’s good for the public education system because it forces public schools to improve to keep from losing pupils. A well-drafted “choice rescue” bill won’t increase education costs, and it will keep Vermont at the forefront of states that recognize the value of parental choice in education.
Parents and school directors will have the chance to speak out for protecting school choice at a hearing and rally at the State House on February 24 (1:15pm) . The teachers’ union hopes no one will come. Disappoint them.
- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).