Op-Ed: Expand, don’t restrict, school choice options

By Rob Roper

For over 150 years, Vermont has operated the most equitable and dynamic school choice program in the nation. Any parents of any children in towns/districts that do not have a public school (some 90 Vermont towns) can choose any public or approved independent school to send their child with an amount of money following the child that is competitive with, if less than, the cost to educate that child in the public school system.

Rob Roper is on the Board of Directors of the Ethan Allen Institute.

This system has given rise to some of Vermont’s most sought-after educational experiences, not just locally but globally. The four “traditional academies,” St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr & Burton, Lyndon Institute, and Thetford Academy, attract students from roughly 30 countries, making these choice schools by far the most racially, culturally, economically and intellectually diverse in our state. And, given the tuition paid by these out of district students (as much as $64,500 a year), these schools are critical economic engines in their communities.

In addition to the four academies, there are over 100 independent schools throughout Vermont serving over 10,000 students, including over 40 with specific missions to serve students with special needs. Of the general admission independent schools, we see some of the top performing schools in the state in terms of student outcomes in places like the Sharon Academy (tuition $18,500) and the Long Trail School (tuition $19,860).

It is worth noting that these stellar outcomes and unique opportunities offered by independent schools come at significantly less taxpayer expense than government-run public schools. The maximum tuition allowed to follow a child to an independent middle or high school this year is $16,020 and $17,278, respectively (exceptions made with local voter approval), compared to an average of $23,299 per public school pupil (NEA Research, April 2022). That’s about a 25 percent taxpayer discount!

One would think that based on a simple cost/benefit analysis (and a long-standing outcry by voters to reduce education property taxes) lawmakers would be eager to expand Vermont’s tuitioning system. But, when this legislature returns to Montpelier in January, Vermont’s century-and-a-half-year-old, highly successful experience with school choice will be under threat of elimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past summer in Carson v. Mason that if a state chooses to operate a school choice program that allows independent schools to participate — which Vermont does — the state cannot discriminate against religious independent schools by barring them from competing for students, which Vermont has been doing since the 1960s. Such discrimination was determined to be in violation of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.

What this means for Vermont is that now other high achieving schools, such as Rice Memorial High School (tuition $12,214) in Burlington and Christ the King (tuition $5,590) in Rutland, are now available choices for tuitionining students. That’s a good thing.

But rather than allow this benefit, several powerful Vermont lawmakers are pledging to eliminate Vermont’s tuitioning system for all independent schools. Families without a public school in their district would have to pick a public school in another district to send their child or pay out of pocket to continue in their current independent school — if they can afford it, and if that school can remain viable at all without tuitioning. This is the preferred approach by Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor), who, ironically, sent her own children to Groton, the elite Massachusetts boarding school (tuition $59,995) at her own expense.

Another approach is that of Senate Education Committee Chair Brian Campion (D-Bennington), which would essentially force all independent schools that receive tuition dollars to operate as public schools in terms of admissions and programming. In other words, force the more expensive model that is demonstrably failing many of its lower income and non-english-language speaking students onto the less expensive more successful schools rather than the other way around.

If we want to apply the same public-school standards to independent schools, fine. But then let’s also apply the same independent school standards to public schools. For example, (1) limit amount of taxpayer dollars flowing to a public school to $17,228 per pupil. If we did that Vermont property taxpayers would save roughly a third of a billion dollars a year. (2) If parents decide the public school is not meeting their child’s needs, they can pull the child out of the public school at any time and send him or her to another with the money following the child. And (3) if a public school fails to actually deliver in practice its legal obligations to serve all special needs students, all public funding for that school will be pulled. That’s fair.

If two years of Covid showed us anything it is that parents need and deserve a multitude of educational options that they can choose from to meet their child’s and their family needs. The wealthy can choose to hire tutors, create “learning pods,” and homeschool if that’s what it takes to educate their children. Lower income families deserve at least a similar range of options and expanding Vermont’s school choice tuitioning system is the way to give them those choices.

Rob Roper is on the board of EdWatch Vermont. He lives in Stowe.

Image courtesy of Burr and Burton Academy

9 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Expand, don’t restrict, school choice options

  1. Interestingly enough, it would appear that the Vermont Independent Schools Assoc. discriminates against Christian schools that hold to religious standards that are offensive to today’s woke secular liberalism! Guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise as many of the so-called ‘Christian’ churches look & sound more and more like the halls of government in Montpelier!

  2. Monopolies almost always result in lower quality and higher costs. If public education is allowed to operate as a monopoly, as Senators Clarkson and Campion seem to want, then children, taxpayers and Vermont will suffer for many generations. Protecting school choice is one issue for which I would travel to Montpelier and demonstrate my support.

  3. When things are “free”, this is one of the problems. They have purposely created the quagmire of funding such that there is no relationship between paying the bill and asking for what you want. A vermonter being tax subsidized for all the bells and whistles doesnt’ feel the pain. Same for the entire town!

    There is no correlation between the person paying the bill and those creating the service.

    This is by design.

    This is a major part of the problem.

    We can educate our children, extremely well for 50% to 75% less than what we currently are doing. Nobody wants a change because of money. Money within the huge system. Money within the “freebies” which is NEVER free.

    P. S. It is not an educational system, it is an indoctrination system, ask our School Principal who was fired, while supporting BLM, only suggesting that looting, killing, stealing are perhaps NOT the best way to bring people to your cause. This is the major, most important part of subverting a nation. Take over the educational system, take over the churches….from there is quickly downhill.

    Yuri Bezmanov and the Book The deliberate dumbing down of America will add great insight.

    Results seldom vary, unlike stock picks, used successfully in many a nation, Cuba, Venezuela, Europe, etc, etc. and the Green Mountain State of Vermont.

  4. The fascist are paying off their unproductive failure unions. Time for the parents who see results from independent schools and mediocre malaise from public indoctrination cntrs to make their voices heard. Don’t let the communist flatlanders take away school choice, it will be the end of having a choice of your kids learning as compared to being subject to failing ed… do it for the children.

  5. Mr. Roper, thanks for this thoughtful and comprehensive analysis!! It is shocking that some legislators are so hateful toward institutions of faith that they would scuttle the whole system in spite. However, I don’t think the public school rules should be imposed on independent schools, since indoctrinating children to be “anti-racists” and to embrace trans-pronouns in rainbow variety are ideological failures that contribute to falling proficiency in math, reading, and other core subject areas. Independent schools could also then be liberated to teach accurate history — including the Abolitionist movement. Also, maybe it should not be mandatory (as in the declining public schools) to condition children to embrace the fallacy that Vermont is a white supremacist system, and that white people are all racist haters. Alison Clarkson and her supermajority should answer for these indoctrinating falsehoods and the harm they have already caused, rather than take ALL education down the whirlpool of their visibly failed partisan efforts in schools.

    • Clear they have not read Philomen

      Clearly, they have no respect for natural law.

      Being filled with pride, they cannot take in wisdom.

      When the underlying premise of subverting a country, is to educate an entire generation, in our case multiple generations (indoctrination) about your ideals, they will not go quietly in the night. They will also corrupt and pervert everything they touch, there underlying goal is antithetical to American values, truth and love.

      If you don’t know your enemy and their goals, you will not live to fight another day.

  6. How I would make money off the expansion of school vouchers:

    1. Count on the bureaucracy’s bias towards trust: “Oh, Burr and Burton have done okay for the last century; this guy’s probably also going to do okay, so let’s just rubber stamp this.”
    2. Hire the unqualified but grateful: Oklahoma has just passed a law saying public schools can hire anybody they want to, no matter how unqualified they are. Pay them minimum wage, and not hear a peep from them because they know they could never get another job that pays so well.
    3. Stint on the infrastructure– maintenance, heating and cooling, and be sure to rent the nicest looking storefront in the abandoned mall.
    4. Apply for all the federal funding available. “The Tree of Profitt Muft be Watered from Time to Time with the Bloode of Taxpayerf.” Be clever about diverting it into my Bahamas account.
    5. Advertise to a fare-thee-well. License Peanuts artwork to convince parents this is the best school ever.
    6. Pad the administrative costs to the stratosphere. Set up consultant and educational supply firms run by my wife.
    7. Study the regs to find all the loopholes and drive armored cars through them.
    8. Pay careful attention that no staff rats the operation out to the regulators.

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