New Law Allows Some Towns To Debate School Choice Options

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(Host) A recent change in Vermont law allows towns that currently have school choice to designate a public school for their students.

VPR’s Amy Noyes has been following the issue in Elmore, where school directors brought it up for public discussion.

(Noyes) Elmore educates its first- through third-graders here, at the Elmore Lake School. It’s the last one-room schoolhouse operating in Vermont, and it’s a very busy place.

Other Elmore students attend school in Morrisville – until seventh grade, when they can choose their school.

Most, however, stay at Morrisville’s Peoples Academy for middle and high school. And that’s part of the reason the Elmore School Board thought voters might be interested in giving up school choice and designating Peoples Academy as Elmore’s public school.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. At a recent public hearing on the proposal, not a single person was willing to give up school choice.

Parent Karin Shearer said having her child involved in picking a middle school was an invaluable experience.

(Shearer) "For my child to be able to visit different schools and be part of making that choice is why we moved to Elmore. And I would hate to see that change for my child or for anyone’s child."

(Noyes) Elmore is one of 80 districts around Vermont that has no middle or high school and let’s those students choose their school.

Last session, the Legislature gave those districts the option of designating a public school in another town as their own to help them better predict their budgets.

Until now districts with school choice could only designate an independent school, such as Lyndon Institute.

Otherwise, the districts had to offer school choice. And their budgets were driven by tuition rates charged by other schools, and the number of students who took advantage of choice. Act 44 is designed to make budgeting easier by taking out some of the guesswork.

Secondary school tuitions are set using a complicated state formula, and the final result varies from around $9,000 per student to more than double that amount.

It’s that unpredictability that makes Act 44 attractive to some school boards. So far, school districts in Georgia, Grand Isle and Elmore have publicly explored replacing school choice by designating a nearby public school.

In Elmore, administrators estimated they’d save two cents on the tax rate if they designated Peoples Academy.

J.B. McKinley’s children graduated from Craftsbury Academy and St. Johnsbury Academy. He said, in his experience, two cents is a bargain for school choice.

(McKinley) "What I would be willing to pay: far more than the two cents now – maybe ten or twenty cents, much more. And that is to pay for your children. Mine are already gone."

(Noyes) Lamoille South Superintendent Tracy Wrend oversees schools in both Elmore and Morrisville. She said she was surprised by Elmore’s unanimous support for school choice, and inspired by the town’s commitment to education.

(Wrend) "It really was a reminder that our citizens expect us not just to talk about cost, but to talk about quality. And there was a real passionate commitment to ensuring continued quality in public education for the children of Elmore. And that was inspiring."

(Noyes) Elmore school administrators say it’s unlikely the school board will continue to pursue the issue, for now.

But, with Act 44 on the books, the subject could be brought back for a town-wide vote at any time.

For VPR News, I’m Amy Noyes.

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