School consolidation failure a wake-up call for Vermont’s school-choice advocates

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

NO CHOICE: District consolidation could end Vermont’s longstanding independent school tradition, which dates back to 1869.

While the Vermont Legislature fumbled a last-minute attempt to merge Vermont’s 270 school district boards into approximately 50 districts over the next few years, supporters of the state’s independent schools say the push by lawmakers was a wake-up call for advocates of educational choice.

“It’s going to come up again,” Daren Houck, head of The Mountain School at Winhall, told Vermont Watchdog.

“Senator Dick McCormack, who is the Senate Education Committee chair, said it is going to be highlighted, and other people in the House Education Committee have commented that it’s going to keep coming back.”

Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, said the Legislature’s failure to merge districts and place a moratorium on independent schools was only temporary.

“It’s a bit of a stretch to call the death of the moratorium a ‘triumph’ for school choice. It basically died on the one-yard line when time ran out on the clock — not because a majority of the Legislature wouldn’t have voted for it given the chance,” he said.

As late as Saturday, House and Senate conferees attempted to hash out differences on legislation that would have consolidated districts, merged school district boards and placed a moratorium on public school closings — a move that would have ended school choice in the Green Mountain State.

However, negotiations between the House and Senate failed due to time constraints, and the gavel came down on the 2014 legislative session.

Since switching from public to private independent in 1998, The Mountain School at Winhall has sparked renewed interest in educational independence in Vermont. At that time, the school ranked among the bottom 10 worst performing schools while charging the highest tuition in the state.

Residents frustrated by the school’s mismanagement decided to shut down and re-open as an independent K-8 school, as part of Vermont’s town tuitioning program. Fifteen years later, students at The Mountain School are outperforming peers in some of the best schools in Vermont.

“The Mountain School finished 15 to 20 percentage points above the state of Vermont average for math, reading and writing. In addition, over a 15-year period our tuition increased by only 5 percent. I would challenge any school to do that,” Houck said.

SCHOOL INDEPENDENCE WORKS: Daren Houck, Head of School at The Mountain School at Winhall, has helped to spark renewed interest in Vermont’s town tuitioning model.

Adding context to the magnitude of that turnaround, Houck noted that Vermont eighth graders rank second in the United States in both math and reading. Students at The Mountain School are now performing at even higher levels.

With approval in all 12 categories of special education, The Mountain School offers top-notch educational opportunities for students in the towns of Winhall, Stratton and Dover — rural towns that lack a public school and are eligible for the town tuitioning program.

Recognizing the success of Vermont’s independent schools, North Bennington caused a stir in 2013 when town residents voted to close the public school and re-open under the town tuitioning model.

“North Bennington was controversial,” said Jeff Reed, communications director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “The town voted three times to close the school to become a non-operating school district.”

Reed said parents were determined to do whatever was necessary to regain control over the school.

“They were tired of the impositions being put upon them by the state and the federal government, they valued independence, they wanted to give teachers flexibility and reward great teachers and be able to dismiss teachers who weren’t effective in the classroom,” he said. “They found they needed independence to do that, and the school choice program enabled them to do that.”

Other public schools in the state — most notably Rochester School and Westford Elementary School — have expressed their intent to follow the lead of The Mountain School and North Bennington.

According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 2,608 students participate in Vermont’s town tuitioning program. Under the program, families in rural areas lacking a public school receive a state voucher averaging $14,055 to send kids to independent local schools.

Educational independence has produced some of the state’s most prestigious academies, including the St. Johnsbury Academy, founded in 1842; the Lyndon Institute, established in 1867; and Burr & Burton Academy, founded in 1829.

According to Reed, Vermont invented educational choice and continues to inspire the school independence movement today.

“Vermont’s town tuition model is the oldest school choice program in the country. It was created in 1869,” Reed said.

“Milton Friedman, our founder, when he first proposed the school choice idea in 1955, he admitted that the idea wasn’t really new. It already existed in two states: Maine and Vermont. Milton was influenced heavily by those two programs.”

As The Mountain School at Winhall has demonstrated, town tuitioning could be a solution to the state’s skyrocketing cost of education. While Vermont currently spends between $12,461 per student for education, tuition has risen to unsustainable levels at some public schools.

According to the annual Announced Tuition Report from the Vermont Agency of Education, Arlington High School costs $18,641 per student, Cabot High School in Washington County costs $17,000 per student and Craftsbury High School in Orleans County costs $16,000 per student.

By comparison, The Mountain School at Winhall costs $13,750 (for seventh and eighth graders), and tuition rates have risen only 5 percent since the school turned independent in 1998.

Despite the success of Vermont’s independent schools, educational independence is on the chopping block. Gov. Peter Shumlin, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and scores of lawmakers have backed consolidation as a way to save money — to the dismay of school choice advocates.

“Ninety percent of Vermonters have stated in surveys that they want choice. And that includes independent schools, charter schools, online learning — they want alternative opportunities for their children,” Houck said.

“We need to continue to be responsible active citizens to make sure people in Montpelier are people who represent our best interests and not the interest of bureaucracy.”

Reed said it’s disturbing to see Vermont leaders threaten a tradition of choice that goes back well over a century.

“This (town tuitioning) program is giving greater power to communities and to educators. So, for lawmakers to come down so harshly on that is a bit concerning,” he said. “Communities are using this program to save their local neighborhood schools. This is a program that deserves expansion not deletion.”

While frustrated with the Legislature, Roper noted that for now the window remains open for other public schools to follow in the footsteps of schools like The Mountain School and North Bennington.

“The school consolidation bill — and the moratorium — died for the year. Schools are now free to move forward with North Bennington-type plans if they choose to do so.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Category: News, Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin, North Bennington School, school choice, The Mountain School

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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