Community Forum: School Choice – Everyone has it!

Let’s be clear! Every student and their parents have a choice as to what school their child attends. The real question is who is going to pay for that choice.
Let’s play out a few examples: A student from my local high school, Mt. Abraham, can choose to attend Mt. Abe or he or she could choose to attend any other public high school in the state within the capacity of the receiving school to accommodate the additional student. This has been used by public high school students across the state in order to attend a high school that the student believes gives them what they need, often an opportunity to play a sport not offered in their “home” school. For a Mt. Abe student that might be hockey at Middlebury or Champlain Valley Union High School. In this case no additional tuition is charged, the student most often needs to provide transportation to the alternate school. That is not a hurdle for most Vermont families though for some it may prevent that “choice.”
Another example of choice for the student at Mt. Abe would be that a student wishes to attend the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. In this instance, every child has a right to attend the tech center in their region and furthermore, if the local tech center does not offer the program of study the student is interested in they may attend any one of the other tech centers in the state that does provide such a program. The tech center does charge the sending school tuition which comes out of the local school budget and is further subsidized by state tax dollars. Once again the only hurdle for families is transportation.
Some communities have made arrangements to pay tuition to one or more private independent schools for their students to attend. Generally speaking the town pays the tuition in the amount of the average per-pupil spending in Vermont the previous year. (Last year roughly $14,000). Some towns have made different tuition arrangements with private schools both higher and lower that Vermont’s average per-pupil spending. These tuition arrangements can be made with multiple schools and in these cases the communities pay the full tuition from local school taxes. Neither the student nor the parents are required to pay any additional tuition. Special education costs are often billed back to the communities in which the student resides and that community must pay those costs out of local education spending supplemented with state and federal special education money. Also, in these arrangements transportation is sometimes included.
Some communities offer vouchers to the students in their community. In that case, the voucher is for a fixed amount of money and the student can attend any non-religious school in the world. This is a proposal that candidate for governor Matt Dunne advocates as his hometown of Hartland is one of the communities that uses this system. Some students in Hartland get a voucher to attend Kimball Union Academy across the river in New Hampshire. In one example, the tuition is $34,000, the voucher from Hartland is $14,000 perhaps the scholarship from the KUA is $10,000, leaving $10,000 for the parents to come up with in order for this to be a choice their child can exercise.
Any student can choose to attend a religious school and in that case the parents must pay the entire cost.
Many agree that choice is a wonderful advantage of our diverse society and indeed students and their parents currently have choice. The way that choice is structured and delivered is at the heart of this conversation. From a public tax and education policy perspective we need to preserve equitable and quality public education of all Vermont students at an affordable cost.

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