On Wednesday, the House Education Committee took up the H.258, which would eliminate Independent school choice in Vermont. Andrew Jones (Assistant Superintendent, MMU) shared that he was also an education policy researcher at UVM and considers himself an expert on “school privatization.” As someone who strongly believes in the institution of public education, he voiced his support for the bill because he is “gravely concerned” about the 2022 Carson V. Makin ruling. He believes that allowing school vouchers to go religious schools undermines the public education system. He also argued that vouchers “effectively subsidize the wealthy” because research from other states with vouchering programs indicated that they were most often utilized by families who would have sent their kids to private schools regardless.
NOTE: This betrays a misunderstanding of how Vermont’s system works. Only school districts that have no public option are guaranteed public tuition here. The talking points Jones is using are typical national arguments from public school unions.
Jones continued on to make the argument that the geographic complexities of the state might prevent certain families from accessing certain schools. He also stated that public vouchers funnel money away from the public school system.
NOTE: Again, he betrays a misunderstanding of how Vermont’s public tuitioning system works. Public schools do not exist in the districts that tuitioning students are coming from.
He proceeded to all the push for education freedom “nothing more than smoke a mirrors” and the warned that groups supporting school choice have to goal “dismantling public education.”
Chairman Conlon noted that Jones’ testimony referred heavily to religious schools and wondered if his testimony would be the same if it was in the context of all independent schools. Jones admitted it would be a little different in that context and noted that his comments were really just limited to religious schools.
Neil Odell (President, Vermont School Boards Association) testified next. He has been a school board member in Norwich for 13 years. His district is an inter-state school district, which is unique. He acknowledged that Vermont’s tax rate and tuitioning system is complicated, but attempted to explain it to the committee. He shared some graphs showing the amount of tuition at various independent schools and a couple headlines about superintendents concerned about increasing tuition costs.
His main argument is that independent school demographics and enrollment practices lead to an “overfunding” of students. He believes that the net effect of this overfunding is a transfer of funding from public schools to private schools. He argued this is particularly true for districts who operate some grades but tuition others.
Representative Williams gave the example of some of her small towns in the Northest Kingdom, such as Maidstone. They tuition their kids and there are no close public schools and if they had to pick three it would be unworkable for parents in her district.
Representative Buss asked what would change if the legislature forced towns to designate schools instead of allowing tuition. It was unclear to the Committee what would change from a financing perspective.
Jay Nichols (Executive Director, Vermont Principals Association) shared several stories with the Committee, saying that “if parents want to send their kids to schools that discriminate that’s on them, but we shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to do that.” The Vermont Principals Association supports some version of H.258 that protects the historic academies. He admitted that there were some schools in a pre-Makin world that make sense to allow to continue taking public students. He emphasized that this “was not a fight that Vermont went looking for,” it was brought upon us by the supreme court.
He recounted a letter the VPA received from a private Christian school asking not to play a sports game against a team that had a trans-gender athlete. They asked the VPA to not allow the player to play in the game between to the teams. Nichols warned that under current law that school could be eligible to receive public dollars.
NOTE: There was no indication that the school Nichols spoke of was an Approved Independent School eligible to receive tuition dollars. Recently the State Board of Education rejected applications from two independent schools attempting to receive this designation but refused to attest to equity and inclusion principles.
He gave a few more examples of incidents that had happened at independent schools.
Someone on the Committee questioned why three schools is the magic number for designation. Nichols thought that number was low and likely wouldn’t meet the
Representative Brady asked what the process is in public school if a student gets in trouble and how that compares to the private schools. Nichols thought that independent schools could pretty much do whatever they wanted to do. In public schools it goes to the school board, unless the student is on an IEP, in which case they get a special review with case workers.
Representative Stone asked about the California and their requirements for blind applications. These are effectively included in the new 2022 rule series.
Falko Schilling (Advocacy Director, ACLU-VT) spoke last, saying that his testimony from January set the guideposts for the discussion around this bill. He believes that leaves the state with three options:
- Maintain the status quo, with public dollars going to all institutions.
- Only use public dollars for public schools.
- The middle ground, as they see it, is the designation approach.
Schilling argued that the criteria in H.258 has “nothing to do with religion,” but rather is focused on the quality of education. From a constitutional perspective, they “fully support” the approach taken by the bill to create “content neutral and generally applicable standards.”
Representative Taylor asked if some of the issues they have heard about with expulsion might be something ACLU would take on? Schilling shared that due to capacity issues that was unlikely to happen, but he also pointed out that the Human Rights Commission might also take those complaints depending on the nature of them.
The Committee came back to H.258 on Thursday afternoon to hear from Peter Burrows (President, Vermont Superintendents Association) who shared that he believes the “very real onset of privatization is coming to Vermont.” He urged the Committee to act on this, however, he acknowledged that, at face value, school choice sounds good and appeals to our democratic roots. However, he believes the effective outcome is stratification of our education system. He further stated that by funding Vermont’s town tuitioning program we are “taking a step away from a commitment to schools that serve all children.” He believes that the bill is a reasonable compromise.
He stressed that voucher programs nationally have led to “no great increase” in student outcomes but has created stratified educational outcomes and classes. He believes this is a national issue.
Representative Williams asked, as she has nearly every witness, how to solve for the situation in the Northeast Kingdom where there are no public schools. Burrows didn’t have an answer but suggested that the Committee might be able to make a carve-out.
Representative Buss asked if the Vermont Superintendent’s Association had any research on how vouchers impacted public school financing. He didn’t have any data on-hand but thought he could find some.
Representative Brady asked if he could speak to the complexities of Vermont’s system and “Messiness” of it. Burrows pointed to the Act 46 process as trying to rectify that. No one designed this system, it has evolved organically, but the more coherent we can become the better that is going to be for students he believes.
Representative Minier asked if education dollars following a student actually increased the equity for that specific family, even if it might hurt the public school. Burrows questioned if it was better to give parents choice or work to provide more supports for public schools. Looking at other states, there are a number of states that have moved towards a universal vouchering systems. He believes we don’t fully understand the impacts of this yet.
Williams asked if the public school system has thought of a different avenue for strengthening public schools without touching private schools. He pointed to the discussions that are ongoing around mental health and school facilities.
Representative Toof asked if we have an issue with our childcare vouchers and whether or not this also applies for private vs public pre-k access. Burrows thought that the limitation to 10 hours per week created a tricky situation, but that it was more of a funding issue than a delivery issue. He has heard from many that there is a strong foundation of private providers in some areas.
Brady asked if we are at a point as a state where not doing anything now (like in this session) we are ensuring privatization and fracturing of our education system. Burrows did think that if a step is not taken this year it will continue to “roil.”