A public forum meant to focus on how Act 46 was affecting private schools and school choice turned into a discussion about how awesome school choice is and how it should be universal so no Vermont student would be denied a private school education because their parents can’t afford it.
“It is sadly ironic that our political leaders, such as our governor, can take advantage of school choice and independent schools such as Buxton” — where Gov. Peter Shumlin attended high school in Massachusetts — “but actively deny that same opportunity to those that are less advantaged,” said David Kelley, a school board member at Hazen Union.
“To those politicians who stand in the way, I would repeat Bob Dylan’s admonishment: ‘Don’t stand in the doorway and don’t block the hall, cause the times they are a changin.’”
Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, and Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, co-chairs of the School Choice Caucus, hosted the forum at the Statehouse on Thursday to learn more about how Act 46 — the law that encourages voluntary school district consolidation — is affecting independent schools and schools in communities that might lose students from town mergers.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, minority leader in the Senate and a member of Lyndon Institute’s board of trustees, joined them on the dais.
“We are not sitting back and taking Act 46 lightly,” said Strong. “There are those of us feeling very motivated seeing Act 46 be in our best interest, not in the state’s best interest. Lord willing, I’ll get re-elected, and Act 46 will be my passion when I get back.”
School choice and town tuitioning became an issue after Act 46 was signed into law because towns that decide to merge into a larger school district have to either operate all the grades in a school or offer students tuition for all the same grades.
There are places in Vermont where neighboring towns do not operate in the same way. This means they can’t merge without changing either by closing their school building and offering choice or by voting not to tuition students to private and other public schools and instead send them to the school in the new district.
While there was plenty of Act 46 bashing at the event, only one of the people who spoke addressed the subject of the forum with her remarks. That was Christina DeGraff-Murphy, executive director of the Imagine School in Fletcher, a state-approved private school that does not take and doesn’t plan to take public tuition dollars.
DeGraff-Murphy said her family moved to Fletcher to take advantage of town tuition. She said they have a nice property with lake views.
“We pay a tremendous amount of real estate taxes, but we viewed it as an investment because ultimately we would have school choice,” she said, adding that now that her Act 46 study committee is considering a merger that would require giving up choice, she and her husband are dismayed.
The towns of Fairfax, Fletcher and Georgia make up the study group, and she said both options they are looking at would cause her town to change the way it operates and stop tuitioning students.
DeGraff-Murphy said her husband and she feel like their real estate investment is about to depreciate. “We feel like we are pouring cement into the lake and creating a parking lot,” she said.
A number of private school students attended the meeting. Evan Crumb was among those who spoke to the lawmakers. Crumb said he attended first the Maple Street School and then Long Trail School because he didn’t fit in at public school, where he was more interested in learning than his peers. Crumb said his family would not have moved to Vermont if they couldn’t have had tuition support from his town.
“School choice is a huge incentive to move here,” Crumb said, explaining that it allowed him to attend the Long Trail School, where his father would soon be working, without incurring financial problems. “I am a student who moved to Vermont to take advantage of school choice. We need to support all schools for Vermont’s best interest.”
DeGraff-Murphy said she gets calls from parents on a weekly basis who want something different than public school for their students. “By the time people make that phone call to me they are feeling really desperate, and it is heart-wrenching to tell them there is no alternative if they can’t pay that tuition.”
Hebert told a story of a girl at Vernon’s elementary school who was struggling even with an individual education plan. “Her parents saw the program in Dover and thought it would be good for her. They had to move to Dover,” he said, because they didn’t have choice. He added that she flourished and is now at Brattleboro on the honor roll.
“It is not a matter of supporting public school or not. It is about what is good for those children and spending public dollars in their best interest,” Hebert said.
Rachel Baker, a senior at LiHigh School in Poultney who is also taking classes at Green Mountain College, spoke about poverty and choice. “Vermont is ranked 27th of all states on taxes and that is nice and average. When it comes to education we are fourth. That tax money we put toward education, we are reaping benefits, we are seeing results,” she said. “When you invest in your children you are investing in me, and most of the students here, and it is paying off.”
Strong ended the meeting by telling the students that lawmakers are going to invite them back to the Statehouse during the next legislative session. They may deem it “Independent School Day,” she said, and have students come and sing or perform for the lawmakers.
“The folks who come in literally, physically in the building help change policy in our state,” she said. “You do have a lot of influence. We want to thank you for coming, and we want you to come back.”