School choice is for rural communities, too

To the list of locales hosting high-profile debates over school voucher programs (e.g. Ohio, Florida, Milwaukee), you can now add the decidedly low-profile town of Westford, Vermont.

With just 2,100 residents and 407 school-aged kids, this pint-sized community north of Burlington has drawn the state Department of Education's ire. The VDOE has recommended ending Westford's voucher program that has worked well for over 130 years! Yup, Westford is one of 90 small towns in the Green Mountain State that, since the mid-nineteenth century, have provided vouchers to their students to attend schools in nearby communities. Called the "town tuition" system, this marvel of Yankee ingenuity allows towns that can't afford - or aren't big enough - to operate a full-fledged education system of their own to send youngsters on to other public or private (non-sectarian) schools at government expense.

Some of the smallest and most isolated regions in the state are home to these tuition towns.  In fact, Vermont's "Northeast Kingdom" (a high-poverty three-county area that borders New Hampshire and Canada) has several tuition towns that allow poor students to attend stellar private schools, one of which - the St. Johnsbury Academy - was recently featured in the U.S. Department of Education's Education Innovator newsletter.
 
Here's how the system works:

About 90 Vermont towns (approximately a third of all those in the state) are so small that they don't support a full public school system of their own. Many of them, including Westford, have elementary schools but not high schools. A few have no public schools at all. Any town without a public school is a "tuition town" and its school district sends tuition money to the public or private school of the parents' choosing.

This program is no vast free-for-all. Various state formulae govern the amount of money available for tuition. Usually, it's the per-pupil-average but towns can opt to send more. Some towns vote to pay the full tuition for a few popular nearby private schools. And the receiving schools must be accredited institutions and cannot be sectarian.

But back to Westford's troubles. As tax burdens have increased and numbers of school-age children have declined, Vermont has been looking at district consolidation as a way to solve school money woes. (Several other rural states have also considered consolidation in recent years; click here to find out why it's usually a bad idea.) And what happens when several towns decide to join together into some sort of unified governance structure?  Well, if one of those towns is a tuition town and another is not, the tuition town risks losing its choice options.

This was news to Westford School Board chair, Martha Heath. Last year, Westford joined a study committee with nearby Essex Junction and Essex Town to look at ways the three communities could economize by joining together in a shared governance structure. At the time the committee was formed, Heath, no voucher advocate by any stretch of the imagination, assured townspeople that choice would be preserved. She was surprised and disappointed to find the state's Department of Education encouraging the study committee to look at restricting Westford's choice in the name of "equity."

That's right. VDOE legal counsel William Reedy and Commissioner of Education Richard Cate advised the study committee that Westford couldn't keep choice in a consolidation if the two Essex communities didn't also have it.. The committee report recapped their analysis this way: "...for education in a unified union to be equitable for all students, high school choice in a narrower form would have to be available to all students within the unified union." In other words - the reader may be forgiven for wanting a translation of this bureaucratese - no private schools would be included in the options and only a limited number of public ones.

To the state's public education leaders, "equity" obviously means restricting some students' benefits instead of expanding other students' opportunities.  It's a good thing they weren't defining equality during the civil rights era. They might have suggested taking away voting or lunchroom rights from whites in order to create equity with African-Americans.

Yet expanding private school choice opportunities to Essex Junction and Essex Town is an option embedded in statute.  Vermont law says that school districts "may both maintain a high school and furnish high school education by paying tuition to a public school as in the judgment of the board may best serve the interests of the pupils, or to an approved independent school if the board judges that a pupil has unique educational needs that cannot be served within the district or at a nearby public school." 

Why didn't Reedy and Cate advise Essex Junction and Essex Town of this possibility? Reedy claims it "never came up." In a phone interview, however, he did admit that the two non-tuition towns "would certainly alleviate" constitutional and legal issues if they "can find a way" to offer wider choices.

Why should school reformers pay attention to the effort to strip vouchers from Westford's roughly 135 voucher-users, when the voucher rights of tens of thousands of students in larger places face similar threats? Because Westford's town tuition program offers resounding counterexamples to anti-voucher arguments expressed nationwide: that vouchers will lead to private schools "creaming" the best students; that lack of adequate transportation will doom poor students from using their vouchers; and that the community's sense of self will be damaged.

The Northeast Kingdom provides the best argument against the "creaming" claim. This rugged rural area has numerous private schools from which students can choose - Lyndon Institute, St. Johnsbury Academy, even a school that combines competitive ski-racing with academics.  St. Johnsbury Academy receives a large share of tuition students in the area, drawing from approximately 16 towns. None of these towns is a Beverly Hills or Stowe. Most are poor with low family incomes.

As for transportation, rural students in tuition towns find their way to public and private schools in a variety of ways. Some towns provide buses to public schools in the area only, some to most nearby schools, some reimburse parents for transportation costs, and some schools have found it worth their while to provide transportation to attract tuition town students. There is no state-mandated or state-programmed transportation plan for tuition towns. They each work it out. This flexibility allows towns to shift plans from year to year, depending on enrollments, economics and preferences.

As for community, most Vermont tuition towns are so small that their sense of community is found in places like the local quilters club, golf course, community center, or, far more likely, the Town Hall itself where the annual Town Meeting takes place. Lack of a public school doesn't radically affect a town's sense of shared public responsibility for its future.

Westford's story isn't over. The town could decide against district consolidation. The school board may let the townspeople vote on the issue, perhaps in November.

Yet the Westford case, unfortunately, could prove to be a bellwether for the state. Student populations are declining; census figures show the Green Mountain State at the very bottom of the country in terms of birthrates. In-migration and immigration numbers are low. A precipitous decline in student-age population is predicted over the next few decades.

These dwindling numbers of kids are putting pressure on already-pinched public schools. No wonder public school leaders are hugging their captive pupils dearly and snarling at anyone who threatens to peel off a student or two.

If the consolidation monster should gobble up Vermont's tuition towns, it will be a sorry end to a magnificent and long-lived voucher program that demonstrates the value of school choice far beyond big-city limits.

Libby Sternberg is executive director of Vermonters for Better Education

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