A lawmaker from Woodstock is raising questions about whether Vermont students who live in towns without high schools are attending too many programs outside the state at taxpayer expense.
But many families value that choice. Meet, for example, Sadie Smith, a ninth grader at Stanstead College. It’s a private high school just over the international border from Derby Line.
She travels over an hour each way every day to attend classes there.
Sadie knows there’s controversy about whether Vermont should help her parents pay for this school rather than one in her own state. But she believes students like her should be able to choose the best secondary programs they can find.
"I mean, why should we have kids not have the opportunity to go to places like this for education and just for the experience. It’s really like, how many people can say they have best friends in Australia or Saudi Arabia, or Mexico. Not many in Vermont schools," she said just before heading for lunch in the dining room.
Joanne Carruthers, director of admissions, is proud of this close-knit academic community, where there are often only ten or twelve students in each classroom. She says Vermonters like learning and practicing French on campus, and in Stanstead’s stores and restaurants.
"But they are also meeting students from Germany, from Mexico, and from several different countries in Asia, from the Middle East, from South America, from all over the world And these are their friends, and these are their friends for life, so it’s special, and different. It’s unique," Carruthers said.
Carruthers has been admitting one or two Vermonters each year for many years now. Each student brings up to $12,000 in public funding from Vermont. That’s usually about two-thirds of the total, though scholarships are often available to make up the difference.
And Stanstead is not the only school to accept such students. Every year, about 300 public school students take about $3 million in tuition money out of state.
Woodstock representative Alison Clarkson can understand why families value that choice, but she worries that the exodus is shortchanging Vermont’s public schools.
"This is really about trying to keep students in Vermont and having our property tax dollars stay in Vermont, particularly when we are looking at this declining enrollment crisis that we are looking at. And that’s putting additional pressure on our property tax rates," Clarkson said. For the second time, she is introducing legislation to change the practice.
Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca hasn’t taken a position on it. He says he understands the fiscal dilemma Clarkson describes. But, he notes, other states also send their students to Vermont.
So he says he’s not ready to dismantle a voucher system based on long-standing arrangements without a thorough study of its costs and benefits.
In fact, he says, he’d like to see even more school choice than families have now. But that, he says, is an ambitious project for a future legislative session.
Clarkson’s bill is now in the hands of the education committee.