By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
When North Bennington Graded School closed its doors and the Village School opened in the same building, it looked like a win-win.
The public school had been stuck in a downward spiral – decreases in student population led to declines in state funding that required cuts in the programs the small Vermont community valued.
The local board had little control over the school, and there were rumors that the state might consolidate the school with another town’s.
Local residents came together, closing the public school entirely and opening the Village School, an independent town academy operating under the state’s town tuitioning program, in which the state effectively pays tuition instead of funding schools.
But that option may not be available to other communities facing similar challenges.
Within the State Board of Education, Vermont Agency of Education and the legislature, some say the conversion is an abuse of the tuitioning law, and there’s no guarantee the independent schools will provide local students with the education they deserve.
“It was a pretty contested process, and it took over a year and a half. In a large part, the state has not been supportive,” said Eva Sutton, former school board member who helped with the conversion. “It’s very gratifying to have a school that’s operational. We’re all very pleased about that.”
State Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington who chairs the education committee, proposed a bill last year that would have prevented such conversions. The bill failed, but a study committee will report its findings in mid-December, just in time for the legislative session beginning in January.
Independent school advocates are gearing up for an uphill legislative battle.
Tuitioning: A different approach to public education
While most school-choice programs – vouchers, for example – date to the 1990s, Vermont’s town tuitioning program began in 1869, the year Harriet Tubman got married and Leo Tolstoy published “War and Peace.”
Today, the population of Vermont is smaller than Detroit’s, and the state never has been a booming, metropolitan hub. In some towns, it didn’t make sense to operate a school because there weren’t many school-age kids.
Nevertheless, the state had an obligation to provide every child a free education, so it began tying education funding to students instead of schools.
If a town doesn’t have a public school, public funding will follow the student to any public or independent school — including out-of-state and out of country — as long as the school isn’t faith-based. (Faith-based schools were permitted till 1961; three state Supreme Court cases later, they’re not permitted.)
Some independent schools, called town academies, serve students the way a public school would. If a town agrees to make up the difference between tuition and baseline state funding, the school guarantees admission to local students.
Some Vermont communities didn’t build public schools because they already had a town academy. The oldest, Thetford Academy, has been operating since 1819.
Only twice in the state’s history have public schools converted to independent schools. In Bennington County, parents frustrated with high taxes funding a school they weren’t satisfied with converted it to the Mountain School at Winhall in 1998.
Parents are happier with their kids’ education, said Darren Houck, head of school, and the tax burden is lighter.
In North Bennington, it was a different story.
North Bennington, Vt.
Tom Martin has been the principal at North Bennington’s elementary school for eight years.
“When I first arrived here, one of the primary concerns that surfaced, even in the interview, was that the school would not remain open, that eventually forces were working around that would close the school,” he said.
The student population was declining, and the state had been working to consolidate some school districts. North Bennington residents feared their school would be targeted because it was so small, Martin said. Today, 125 students are enrolled at the school.
Furthermore, state funding is linked to enrollment, and both were declining.
“The board can’t control the costs of fuel oil, or electricity. They are what they are,” and they were going up, Martin said.
“They found themselves going into the budget to control costs in the only area that they had control, which was the program.”
Local control became an issue. The supervisory union – one step between the local district and the state – controlled many of the district’s expenses — labor agreements, contracts, salary increases, health care.
“We went through draconian reductions — art, music, library programs, and these are programs the community values a great deal. It was very painful for the school,” Martin said.
The cuts stabilized finances for a while, but school board members knew they’d be fighting the same battle in a few years when enrollment and funding decreased even more and other costs increased.
“You’re not going to keep doing that, to a point where the school will no longer resemble the school you want,” he said. “People will say, ‘What do we need the school for?’”
The school board “looked into the future and saw it coming and said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Martin said.
An investigatory committee was commissioned to look at options. First, they polled the community, and residents said having a local school was “vital,” said Sutton, who chaired the committee.
The committee explored options, including connecting with a different supervisory union, which is an umbrella school district made up of several local school districts. Closing the school and encouraging families to establish an independent town academy seemed the best option.
So they did. The Village School guarantees enrollment to all North Bennington students, including those with special needs.
“Now, as a staff, we own the school. We can work really hard here every day to make sure this is a place where people who live here want to send their children, and maybe parents in neighboring districts want to send their children,” Martin said.
“We can recruit children from other districts, from overseas, so we can look at enrollment as a strategic part of our overall plan. Enrollment is no longer something that’s done to us based on residency.”
Pushback from the state
Other schools have been considering a conversion, said Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association.
“It always is very small districts where they’re feeling threatened, either by high costs or threats of consolidation, for example, but nobody has made any formal proposals at this point,” he said.
There’s an ongoing conversation about the high cost of Vermont education and alternatives to the existing model, as residents feel the stress on their property taxes, Moore said.
Many in the State Education Department and Legislature were displeased with North Bennington’s conversion and are working to prevent other schools from following suit.
“I would still love to find a way to make it harder for a public school to do this. We have not yet found a way. I plan on maybe having a conversation with the attorney general to see if there is some way in which we could just make it more difficult or absolutely not allow a public school to become a private school,” said Donovan, the state representative.
Last year, Donovan sponsored a bill that would have made independent conversion impossible for public schools. The bill failed.
Donovan opposes these conversions because she said sees herself as a “strong advocate for public education” — for the students and for the community.
Independent schools may not offer everything owed to students, she said, particularly special needs students who have a right to special education provided by the school district.
“I could see a possibility where some child with special needs wouldn’t be able to get the service at the new private school which used to be public,” she said. “That child might look different from the other children in the district.”
“We, as a community, all of us, regardless of whether we have children, we have a civic responsibility to offer our children a very, very excellent education. It’s to our benefit as citizens that we educate the next generation, and we do it as a community, as a public community,” she said.
Independent schools take away that sense of community, she said.
“The taxpayers of that community are really just paying a bill right now. They’re not really part of the community; it’s no longer a public entity,” she said.
She said she didn’t see any advantage to converting a public school, and any reform should be done by improving the existing public school system.
The battle ahead
Since Donovan’s bill didn’t pass, a summer study committee was commissioned to look into the issue — specifically, the financial impact of the state funding independent schools and the consequences of an independent school board not being publicly elected. The report will be published Dec. 15.
Robert Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, called the committee a “farce.”
The study committee was unable to gather enough information to conclude anything, and Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca will write the report, said Julie Henson, who sat on the committee and represented independent schools.
“There was no vote-taking on the summer committee, no recommendations made, and we never fully discussed the pros and cons of the things we were tasked to look at,” Henson said.
Vilaseca, who was not available for comment, has said committee members will be able to see the final report before it’s published, but has not agreed to allow them to discuss the final version or make changes, Henson said.
“Those of us who represent independent schools don’t know what it will look like,” she said.
She and Roper said there are strong feelings among the state education administration that independent schools shouldn’t get public funds for any reason. They expect the summer report to hit the fan in January, when the legislative session begins.
Roper and Moore said their organizations intend to educate the legislature about independent schools and school choice.
“Every time you talk about school choice and see ‘Waiting for Superman,’ it’s always about an inner city school that is imploding and totally dysfunctional,” Roper said. “The kids are failing, there’s metal detectors and drugs rampant, and we need school choice to fix that. That gains the most sympathy but school choice works in the suburbs. Vermont is where it is.”
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at [email protected]
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