McClaughry: Exterminating parental choice

by John McClaughry

Vermont’s long history of parental choice in education will come to a crashing end in 2028 if a bill designed and backed by the “Educational Equity Alliance” makes it through the legislature.

 What was informally known around Montpelier as “the Public Education Blob” has now become the “Educational Equity Alliance”. Its four components are the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont Principals Association, and the biggest gorilla, the 13,000 member Vermont-NEA.

All four of the EEA member organizations staunchly oppose parents being allowed to send their children to independent schools at public expense.  What do parents know? Only credentialed public school educators and bureaucrats know what’s good for these children! If parents don’t like the offerings of local government school monopoly, they can speak up at school board meetings. When last year some in Virginia did just that, the National School Boards Association demanded that Attorney General Garland dispatch the FBI to collect the names of objectors.

Under Vermont law dating to 1869, the parents of those pupils in tuition towns (now totaling 6,063) have the choice to direct the school board to tuition their children to public or approved independent schools, in or out of the state. Half of these pupils attend independent, and half public, schools. “Approved” means that the independent school must be comparable in curriculum, fiscal management and observance of civil rights to ordinary public schools. Until last year, tuition towen parents could not choose sectarian independent schools like Bishop Rice High School in South Burlington and Good Shepherd School in St. Johnsbury.

But last June a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Carson v. Makin) held that if a state (Maine) tuitioned pupils to nonsectarian independent schools, as in Vermont, refusing to tuition children to sectarian independent schools constitutes a violation of their right to free exercise of religion. Thus parents in tuition towns can choose a faith-based approved independent school to receive public tuition payments. Education Secretary Daniel French so advised the towns before the current school year.

The public school organizations have never been happy about tuitioning, but had no choice but to accept it for purely practical reasons in a state with many small rural towns that couldn’t support a K-12 public system. But now, alarmed by the State’s required compliance with the Court decision, the four organizations created the EEA to persuade the legislature to end tuition payments to any independent school. More than half of its 82-page bill (S.66) is devoted to exterminating the concept of “approved independent school” from Vermont’s education statutes altogether.

There are some minor exceptions, such as schools for special education pupils, now insensitively labelled “therapeutic schools”, and Career Technical Education centers operated under contract by independent schools. There is also a politically necessary (and judicially suspect) carveout for the four nonsectarian academies that serve communities that have no public high schools: St. Johnsbury Academy, Lyndon Institute, Burr & Burton Academy and Thetford Academy. (They can be brought under full state control later on.)

The EEA bill requires the school boards in tuition towns – not the parents – to designate three or fewer favored schools for their pupils to attend: public schools outside of the district, tech centers, and the therapeutic schools. Pupils now attending other currently approved independent schools can continue in those schools until 2028, or until the school board imposes designation, whichever happens sooner.

The EEA is buoyed by the fact that the Vermont legislature is firmly controlled by Democrats in no small measure thanks to the political support of the Vermont NEA, and now has little fear of the veto power of a Republican Governor. Its bill is sponsored by eleven Senators, all Democrats.

As Vermont Digger education reporter Peter D’Auria writes, “For some [independent schools] the loss of that [tuition] money could pose an existential threat. “ Just so, and the Educational Equity Alliance, deploring the idea of provider competition and customer choice, will certainly not lament their disappearance.

This retreat from Vermont’s long practice of parental choice for their children in tuition towns will be a disgraceful victory for a public school monopoly that puts its own interests far ahead of the interests of the pupils that Vermont education is supposed to serve.

It may not succeed. Parents in tuition towns are mounting a full throated defense of their choice of schools that they believe do a better job of educating their children. They cherish their opportunity to choose what’s best for their children, and they know what happened to Goliath.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He served as vice chair of the Senate Education committee, and in 1990 authored the expansion of tuitioning to grades one to six in independent schools that S.66 would repeal.

Categories: Commentary

7 replies »

  1. All fair-minded Vermonter should oppose this effort to restrict school choice. And thank you for making it crystal clear that this bill does not merely eliminate religious schools from a parent’s school choice menu.

  2. “Educational equity” goes both ways. Schools receiving taxpayer dollars need to accept any student wishing to attend, regardless of physical or mental disabilities.

    To those who want no state restrictions: Would you be OK to have a Muslim school receiving financial aid with no conditions? If so, then you are at lease you are being consistent.

      • What John said was: “…a Muslim school receiving financial aid with no conditions? ”

        Again, ‘with no conditions’. It’s always the nuanced criteria that is designed to deflect, confuse and deceive.

    • Re: ““Educational equity” goes both ways. Schools receiving taxpayer dollars need to accept any student wishing to attend, regardless of physical or mental disabilities.”

      That public schools must accept all students is a common misperception. Public schools often do not accept all students, especially when it comes to those students with disabilities.

      It is the school district that is required to provide a ‘free appropriate public education’ (FAPE) to all students, not any specific school within that district. Some independent schools specialize in providing special education services to disabled kids when a typical public school cannot provide them.

      Re: “Would you be OK to have a Muslim school receiving financial aid with no conditions?”

      Again, another common misperception. In Vermont all schools are regulated. Even homeschooling is regulated to a degree. If a Muslim school meets the requirements of an independent school, religious affiliation has no bearing according to the SCOTUS. If a Muslim family wants to homeschool, they have the right to do so. As noted earlier, the Amish received and codified these constitutional protections in 1972. Discrimination on the basis of religion is unconstitutional.

      But everyone should keep this in mind. The Vermont legislature, through S. 66, is proposing to eliminate all funding to independent schools. As I’ve said before – S. 66 is ‘in your face’ tyranny. But even the Vermont legislature doesn’t understand some of the nuances in asserting its tyranny. When it comes to Special Education, as governed by the federally regulated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it is the IEP Team (Individual Education Plan) that sets the education program. Parents are empowered members of the IEP Team. And if a public school can’t meet the goals in a students IEP, the parents have the right to send their child to any other school that can.

      The point is, this entire move by the legislature to coopt education dollars into a failed education system is going to run into more road blocks than they can imagine. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to stop them from trying to do so when they have a super-majority in the State House.

  3. Be sure to ask Senator Alison Clarkson why she supports doing away with school choice. Considering her children all went to private schools out of state. Must be because VT public schools are not good enough for her children.