Roper: Will more towns follow Bennington’s move to independent school system?

RobRoperThe town of North Bennington received reluctant approval from the State Board of Education on Jan. 15 to move forward with opening a new independent school for the 2013-2014 school year. This approval triggers the North Bennington Prudential Committee’s (the local school board’s) authority to close the existing public elementary school and rent the building to the new Village School. The move essentially takes the public school independent, but it also gives every child in the community school choice under Vermont law – the right to attend any public or approved independent school, in state or out, with at least the full statewide tuition (currently over $12,000) following the child.

North Bennington joins 92 other Vermont “tuition towns” that have enjoyed school choice for 150 years by virtue of not having a public school within their district. These 92 communities have, over the decades, fed and fueled many of Vermont’s brightest educational stars. St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr & Burton, the Lyndon Institute and the Thetford Academy are the oldest, but new schools catering to new customers with innovative programs, such as the Sharon Academy, the Long Trail School, and the Mountain School at Winhall (which was a public school similarly “taken independent” 14 years ago), are thriving on the scene today. Vermont currently has over 100 diverse independent schools catering to the needs of 11 percent of the total school-age population.

What’s remarkable about the story of North Bennington on a national scale is that school choice is not being employed here as a last resort to save a failing school (See “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” etc.). In North Bennington, school choice is being embraced by the teachers, parents and community at large as a way to make an successful school even better.

The people of North Bennington came to the conclusion that in facing the challenges all Vermont schools are facing – a declining k-12 population, rising costs, and an unpopular, Montpelier-driven policy bent on school district consolidation — they, like their neighbors in tuition towns, could do better for their kids and their community outside the conventional public school system.

What’s remarkable about the story of North Bennington on a national scale is that school choice is not being employed here as a last resort to save a failing school. In North Bennington, school choice is being embraced by the teachers, parents and community at large as a way to make an successful school even better.

Matthew Patterson of the Prudential Committee explained. “We’re trying to look at this proactively. There is statute that allows us to do this. We’re not closing a public school and opening a private school. We’re closing a public school and opening an independent, publicly funded school, with much the same staff and everything else. But it gives us the opportunity to do things that independent schools can do.”

Patterson specifically mentioned a greater capacity to fundraise under an independent model, the ability to counteract declining student numbers by attracting students from other tuition towns (or parents willing to pay the tuition on their own), and, importantly, as a way to preemptively block any attempt by the state to close or merge their community school or otherwise legislate away local control.

Patterson also recounted the trend over the past several years as being marked by rising costs and declining quality. A steady cutting of teaching positions due to budget constraints was eroding the quality of the educational experience. The school managed to maintain standards and keep scores high, but for how long they could continue to do so under the status quo was a big question.

“We’ve lost part times of the arts and music and all the things that make a school well-rounded,” said Patterson. “So, at some point the public’s going to wake up and go … wait a minute, I’m paying now $16,000 per student or whatever it might be … and they’ll look at the quality of the school and decide it is no longer what it was, and we might as well send [our kids] elsewhere by closing the public school.”

With school choice and the new Village School on the horizon, the town, the teachers and the kids are energized by the possibilities and the opportunities now under their control. But, all are not pleased by the new development.

Vermont’s newly appointed Secretary of Education, Armando Vilaseca, acknowledged that what North Bennington is doing is within the law. However, he stated flat out, “I am philosophically against what you’re doing. … It goes counter to everything I believe in. … I hope that our Legislature this year will take a look at what occurred in your community and to not allow a public school and an independent school … open in its place.”

That will be a battle — a big battle — as other towns, such as Killington, Rochester and Burke are already seriously looking into following in North Bennington’s footsteps, and more are watching closely. Two other Vermont towns, Cabot and Concord, will be voting in March about whether or not to close their local public schools and simply offer choice to their students and families.

Jan. 27 to Feb. 5 just happens to be School Choice Week. It looks like Vermonters can be teachers as well as students in this particular national classroom. As Matthew Patterson testified, “If the interest of the State Board of Education, the secretary of Education and the governor is to see the best education that we can give to our students, then this ought to be a model that we look at, and not run away from.”

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