School Choice Could Face Changes

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(Host) The debate over school choice in public education is a hot topic in many states. But in much of Vermont, school choice is already a reality.

Ninety Vermont towns have no middle or high school of their own. So students in those communities get tuition vouchers and can choose which public or independent school they want to attend.

But some lawmakers say the system gives private schools an unfair advantage – and they’re trying to change that, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Host) The kindergarten-through-12th grade public school in Royalton has been struggling with rising costs and shrinking student numbers – a common problem in Vermont.

Surrounding towns, such as Tunbridge and Sharon have no high schools.  They provide tuition vouchers for students to use at whatever secondary school they choose to attend.

Royalton School Board Chair Tom Honigford says his public school would love to have those students and their tuition money.

But the students tend to choose the nearby Sharon Academy and other private schools instead.

(Honigford) "As we needed to attract more students to the building, we became aware that some students have the perception that independent schools are better schools. And because of the perception they choose to go there."

(Keese) Honigford admits the independent schools and academies often have higher test scores. But he says it’s not fair to compare private and public schools.

(Honigford) "Independent schools can pick and choose who they want as students. They tend to not have very many, if any, special ed students… And as you get into it more, you realize there are a lot of other things going on."

(Keese) A pair of bills in the Legislature would "level the playing field," as one lawmaker puts it.

Windsor Senator Dick McCormack is a sponsor.

(McCormack) "The law would be that,…. …. in order to receive public funding, taxpayer dollars, a school would have to abide by all the various rules and requirements that are imposed on our local public schools."

(Keese) Those rules include teacher licensing requirements, the federal No Child Left Behind Law, and state provisions that impose penalties on public schools for spending more per student than the state average.

The House bill would also forbid state tuition money to be spent on schools outside the state.Sponsors say that amounts to five or six million dollars annually.

Mark Oettinger is general counsel for the Vermont Department of Education. He says some independent schools do very well with students with disabilities.

Others don’t even admit those students.

(Oettinger) "Many of our independent schools are approved for all 14 disability categories, some are approved for none. There is no obligation under current Vermont law that independent schools be approved for all categories."

(Keese) Oettinger thinks the proposed bills would defeat the advantages of alternative schools.

(Oettinger) "They have certain degrees of flexibility. They can specialize more. They’re subject to a fairly stringent regulation from the Department of Education, but the nature of that regulation is essentially different…"

(Keese) Senator Dick McCormack says letting private schools "cherry-pick" the easiest and least expensive students to educate, while leaving the rest to public schools, could lead to a downward spiral for public education.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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