Editor’s note: This article was updated at 7:01 p.m. Friday.
With school choice on the ropes after a controversial ruling by the State Board of Education, towns across Vermont are having to choose between educational freedom and harsh penalties imposed by Act 46 — and some Democrats are calling for changes to the law.
“Choice is a real economic driver for our town. We have no business. We’re small. So to draw young families to our community to buy homes and be here, choice has been very important,” state Rep. Linda Martin, D-Wolcott, told Vermont Watchdog.
Martin represents one of 90-plus rural towns in Vermont that have the option to send students to whatever school families think best meets their needs. But after the board ruled that towns merging under statewide consolidation must choose between operating a school or keeping school choice at the same grade levels, tuitioning towns have few good options.
Wolcott operates a K-6 school, which means parents send children to the local elementary school through sixth grade. After that, kids may attend any public, private or independent school, and the state pays tuition.
According to Martin, for Wolcott to keep its choice option for middle- and high-schoolers, the school board must identify a district partner in the state that has choice at matching grade levels. Otherwise Wolcott must give up school choice — or go it alone and face harsh penalties imposed by Act 46.
“The hard part is if you (form) a district, everyone has to have equal opportunity, meaning you all have choice or no one has choice,” she said.
Since the SBE ruling last month, two attorneys have issued legal opinions saying towns can keep the choice option during the merger process under the language of Act 46. In addition, House Minority Leader Don Turner and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, both Republicans, have called on the Legislature to clarify the law when the Legislature convenes in January.
Martin said she supports clarifying Act 46. She’s not the only Democratic lawmaker ready to take a stand for school choice.
“I challenge the State Board of Education interpretation. I join with those who think this matter needs to be clarified,” state Rep. Steve Berry, D-Manchester, told Vermont Watchdog on Wednesday.
“I believe Act 46 protects the rights of choice towns to keep choice at the same grade level as operating schools. I voted in favor of Act 46 because of assurances that school choice would not be tampered with.”
Berry said Manchester residents “overwhelmingly support school choice.” He called himself an “unabashedly a Vermont pro school choice legislator” who would work to preserve choice where it exists.
But state Rep. Avram Patt, a Democrat who represents towns in the Lamoille-Washington district, said it comes down to taxes. Next week, two towns in his district, Elmore and Morristown, will vote on a highly contentious merger. If the towns’ voters say yes to the merger, Elmore, which tuititions students in grades 7-12, will lose school choice.
Patt said it’s a tough decision, but one Elmore residents must make to cope with rising property taxes.
“Elmore residents and taxpayers are faced with a truly impossible property tax situation that goes way beyond tax pressures people feel statewide. That’s why they supported asking for a merger proposal last Town Meeting Day,” Patt told Vermont Watchdog.
While Elmore approved a study committee in March to examine the pros and cons of a merger, residents say they were caught off guard when the study morphed into a scheduled merger vote. In addition, the near-term threat to Elmore is not the usual tax hikes, but Act 46 itself. The law strips Elmore of its $40,000 small schools grant and imposes an excess spending penalty.
Because of that one-two punch, Elmore’s current education tax rate of $1.68 per $100 of assessed property value will jump to about $2.06 in fiscal year 2017 if the town doesn’t merge with Morristown.
“I don’t live in either of the towns voting in this, but something has to give,” said Patt. “Folks in Elmore will decide whether they can afford to keep the choice options they have now or whether they OK the merger.”
With Democratic lawmakers like Berry and Martin ready to fight for tuitioning towns, the Legislature may have the votes needed to change or clarify Act 46 come January.
Berry and Martin say the clear intent of Act 46 was to protect school choice.
“I believed that what I was voting for made it clear that school choice would be retained in Act 46,” Berry said.
Martin said she got her assurances from members of the House Education Committee.
“I was assured choice wasn’t being taken away. What that exactly means I’m not sure at this point. It’s very difficult to have choice now.”
CORRECTION: Patt did not say whether or not he supports the SBE ruling. In an email sent to Watchdog to clarify his position, Patt said he can’t offer a legal opinion on the matter. He also said he supports clarifying the Legislature’s intent “if there is an inconsistency.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org