Rob Roper: More Vermonters are choosing independent schools

This commentary is by Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute. 

While Vermont public school officials are carping about returning to the classroom post-Covid, calling for higher taxes to pay for their pensions, and are otherwise consumed with controversies over mascot names and what flags get to fly on school grounds, Vermont families have been driving an interesting trend — using Vermont’s 150-year-old school choice “tuitioning” program to put their kids into independent schools. 

“Tuitoning” is a benefit in 45 of Vermont’s school districts (out of 110) that do not have public schools at one or more levels, so parents are allowed to use their child’s per-pupil portion of the education fund to pay for access to any public or approved independent school, in state or out. It is very popular in the communities that have it.

According to a March 30 report put out by the Vermont State Auditor’s office, between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 school years, the number of Vermont students in the public K-12 system declined by 12 percent, falling from 85,079 to 74,930 students — a loss of over 10,000 kids.

However, the number of students who tuitioned to approved independent schools increased in total from 3,701 to 3,842. A subset of that, the number of kids tuitioning to in-state Vermont independent schools jumped 8 percent, from 3,147 to 3,407.

This, of course, was before Covid, and does not include the more than doubling of the number of homeschoolers in 2020-21 to more than 4,000, nor does it include at any point the number of Vermont parents who choose to pay out of their own pockets to send their children to independent schools, especially Catholic schools, which managed to remain safely open and in-person throughout the pandemic. 

This trend is alarming to the public school bureaucracy on its own, and doubly so given the fact that two recent court cases have expanded school choice options by opening up tuitioning to religious schools, and a third now pending could make it available to all families. As such, the auditor’s report feels a bit like a fishing expedition looking for avenues to attack Vermont’s independent schools. 

If so, it doesn’t do a very good job.

The main issue the report tries to address is cost, pointing out that the 5% of the school-age population that tuitions to independent schools cost taxpayers $99.4 million for the 2018-19 school year. It notes that the majority of independent schools set their tuition at the statutory “voucher” rate set by the state of $13,910 for elementary tuition and $15,618 for secondary school tuition, but that 29 tuitioning districts voted to pay higher tuition ranging from $990 to $3,570 more, and this additional cost is $3.6 million of that $99.4 million.

But here’s what the auditor doesn’t mention. The average per-pupil cost in Vermont’s public school system for 2018-19 was $19,340 — $3,722 more than the predominant tuition rates charged by independent schools, and $152 more than the most expensive independent school option. 

In other words, even the most expensive independent schools are a better deal on average for the taxpayer, and the majority of the time they are roughly 20% less expensive. And, armed with their tuitioning voucher, no family, no matter their household income, is priced out of these independent schools. 

Yes, if those 29 communities hadn’t voted for higher tuitions for their kids and stuck with the $15,618 per-pupil rate, it would have saved the taxpayers $3.6 million. But, on the other hand, if public school per-pupil spending were set at the independent level of $15,618, it would have saved Vermont taxpayers roughly $374 million. Your choice (pun intended).

The other cost alarm the auditor tries to raise regarding independent schools is an increase in the number of tuitioning students requiring special needs, noting that 26 percent in 2018-19 required IEPs — individualized educational programs — up from 22 percent in 2008-09. But, in pointing this out, the auditor busts the myth that independent schools “cherry-pick” the best-performing, least-challenging students. In fact, according to the Agency of Education, the percentage of students with IEPs in the public schools was 16.3 percent, 10 percent lower than the independents.

What the auditor’s report reveals without intending to is that Vermont’s independent schools are actually attracting — and accepting — more special needs students because mission-driven independent schools do a better job of meeting their needs, and these schools are doing it for significantly less taxpayer money than the public schools. 

If the auditor’s office wants to probe the costs and benefits of independent schools in Vermont, that’s great. Transparency and accountability are good things. But how about a fair, side-by-side comparison with the public school system, and not just on costs, but also on student outcomes. Parents are making those comparisons themselves today, and we’re seeing the results.

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