MONTPELIER, Vt. — Dozens of legislators, educators, school board members and concerned citizens gathered at the Statehouse Wednesday to save Vermont’s 145-plus year tradition of school choice. “Save Our School Choice Day” featured a pledge for legislators to sign to maintain choice while school district mergers go on under Act 46.
“In voting for Act 46, many legislators believed that it would continue to allow Vermont’s existing school choice districts to maintain that choice even if they merge with other districts that operate public schools,” said state Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany. “We are here today to ask legislators to clarify through legislation or amendments that choice will still be allowed for these schools.”
State Rep. Linda Martin, D-Wolcott, stressed the importance of choice for small towns like Wolcott. With little infrastructure or economic opportunity, school choice is one prized asset that her constituents told her they specifically moved there for.
“I’ll say as a mother of two children who had the opportunity to go through school choice, it’s been very good for my daughters,” Martin said. “They each went to two different schools, different educational programs in each school and they thrived.”
State Rep. Joseph “Chip” Troiano, D-Stannard, has a daughter who used school choice to switch schools her sophomore year, a move he said greatly benefited her. He also reiterated the notion that residents do move to towns largely just to have school choice.
“In the part of the Northeast Kingdom where we are, we find that school choice has people moving to towns in order to gain school choice for their children,” he said. “That option is valued by so many people in the state and we need to consider it and keep it a vibrant aspect of our school funding and school situations.”
State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, spoke about legislation she supported to save choice.
“Last year it was abundantly clear to us as legislators that school choice would be able to be maintained, regardless of mergers,” she said. “That has just not been the case. It was clear that we need to do something, so along with several of my colleagues here, including Democrats, and Martin especially, we’ve introduced H.579, which would allow for certain merging districts to both operate a school and allow for tuitioning of those same grades.”
One school in the state allows such a scenario, which is Brattleboro Union High School. State Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, has constituents who attend that school. He and Strong last year introduced a bill to expand school choice to every student in the state.
“I’ve been a school board member for over 30 years,” he said. “The accusation that I may not support public schools if I support school choice is false. … We’re not condemning any school, and there are outstanding schools in Vermont. The fact is not every student fits in every school.”
Merri Greenia, the Craftsbury School principal, talked about school choice from the perspective of receiving students. She also took some digs at Act 46.
“Act 46 kind of reminds me of the show Survivor, or other reality shows where communities are talking about setting up alliances,” she said. “That is a big distraction, and the more serious effect is on school choice. The past five years the number of choice tuition students coming in has tripled, and it enriches our school community in many ways.
“To me, the law says nothing in this act should prevent school choice. Well, the way it’s actually being implemented through the rule is a catch 22: You can have school choice, except if you do you can’t merge, and if you can’t merge then the state will tell you what you need to do.”
David Kelley, school board chair for Hazen Union High School in Hardwick, talked about the importance of choice for low income families.
“If you are wealthy, you have choices. You can go to the school you want to go to. If you want to be a foreign exchange student you can do that,” he said. “I also know if you are not so wealthy, you don’t have choices unless you are one of those lucky enough to live in a (choice) town like Stannard, Walden or Wolcott. Then you may be poor, but you still have the same choices that wealthy families might have.”
Like Greenia, he reiterated the importance that schools receive choice students.
“I want everyone to understand, Walden, Wolcott, and Stannard bring $604,000 to the school that I’m on the board of. If those schools merge with anyone but us, we will lose that money. Craftsbury would lose about a half million dollars. At a small school like Craftsbury you have to ask yourself, how devastating is that loss?”
In a separate interview, Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, was asked about the scenario of students fleeing public schools in districts that get school choice. Roper responded that in such a case where kids aren’t having a good experience at a particular school, it’s more important that they have the option to go elsewhere.
“That’s not a healthy environment,” he said.
In an interview later in the evening, Roper said he thought the turnout and response was very good. He appreciated that there seemed to be some bipartisan support, and he hopes legislators continue to keep an eye on this issue.
Contact Michael Bielawski at firstname.lastname@example.org