MONTPELIER, Vt. — School choice supporters rallied at the Statehouse on Wednesday for National School Choice Week, after months of what Vermonters, and legislators of all parties, say has been assault on school choice by the State Board of Education.
“This is a celebration,” said high school senior Nava Crispe. She attends the private Long Trail School in Dorset, and is the leader of We the Students, a group of young Vermonters fighting for school choice. “We want to show everyone else why we value school choice.”
Crispe partnered with School Choice Vermont to organize a day of events, including student testimonies and a guest speaker, Kevin P. Chavous. The author and attorney is one of the leading Democrat voices for school choice in the country, and was a leader in Washington, D.C.’s charter school program.
Students also submitted Mannequin Challenge videos, which were played throughout the day. “It’s a fun way to show what makes your school (unique),” Crispe explained. The Mannequin Challenge is a viral trend where large groups of people freeze in life-like positions.
Moments of levity are welcome in the midst of a bipartisan effort in the House and Senate to reign in the state board.
Companion bills in the House and Senate aim to remove the rulemaking authority of the board, trusting this power to the secretary of education. Additionally, the bills propose that the governor appoint the secretary, rather than choosing from board-recommended candidates as current law stipulates.
The changes come in the wake of two controversial board rule proposals. The first, presented in July, contained a number of stipulations that critics say would be devastating to independent and private schools, thus eliminating school choice in many areas of the state.
The draft rule would require private schools to comply with special education guidelines to receive state funds, an expensive process that would require licensed special educators and a mandate that private schools accept all students who apply. The second part of the rule would require private schools to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and to have their membership reviewed every five years.
Additionally, the it contained language stating that all teachers would need to be licensed, and that the schools must comply with all state and federal laws just like public schools. The board has since claimed that these requirements were mistakes in the draft’s language.
The second draft rule aims to clarify restrictions on Act 46 mergers, as interpreted by the board.
Lawmakers on all sides of the political aisle have been outspoken about the board’s authority.
“These members are not elected. They’re not politically accountable,” said state Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset. “The board is ideologically misguided, and we need to give the governor a tool to rein them in.”
State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, agrees. “This is a management change, and it puts the board in line with every other agency. The secretary is a member of the governor’s cabinet, and should be chosen by the governor. The secretary should be able to direct the agency with this shared vision.”
H.117 and S. 24 are companion bills with support from Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and independents — broad support rarely seen in Montpelier.
“The state board of education overreached. School choice is a Vermont tradition that carries across party lines,” said state Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs.
However, the measures have not seen comprehensive support. State Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, says she sees a line drawn between large and small towns. Small towns typically have greater school choice.
She says the same pattern played out during the passing of Act 46, Vermont’s school district consolidation law. “The speaker [Shap Smith] pushed the legislation through with the support of only 40 percent of his [Democratic] caucus. He promised cost caps to Republicans to get their support. He screwed over the Democrats, and reneged on his promise to Republicans. So this isn’t just a partisan issue anymore.”
Despite criticisms, the board approved the first draft rule in July, sending it on to the Interagency Committee on the Administration of Rules. In a rare move, the administration sent the rules back to the board in the last weeks of 2016, saying stakeholders should have more input.
Since then, the board has held two public hearings, one in St. Johnsbury, and another in Manchester. In an area with several prominent independent schools, the Manchester rally attracted over 800 people.
The Manchester public hearing convinced state Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, to cosponsor legislation restraining the board. “All the parents who spoke, with the exception of one, had moved to Vermont for our independent schools,” he said. The economic impact of restricting school choice was not something he believed the board to have thoroughly considered.
The State Board of Education has since emphasized that it was never its intent to shut down or limit independent schools. However, Gannon easily raised an example, saying that many families from his district tuition high schoolers into Massachusetts. He said there was no way that these schools, ranked as some of the best in the country, would adapt to conform to Vermont standards as the rule draft proposes.
Crispe said she hopes that the legislation and National School Choice Week events show that board members need to put more thought into their actions.
“At the end of the day, these rules have huge consequences for lots of people. The more we push, the more people will be cautious and thorough. Hopefully we can see revisions, or the rules withdrawn.”