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School Choice in Action in Vermont
posted by: Ruthie | January 17, 2013, 04:39 PM   

This week, the town of North Bennington, Vermont, received reluctant approval from the State Board of Education to move forward with opening a new independent school for the 2013-2014 school year. This approval triggers the North Bennington Prudential Committee's (the local school board's) authority to close the existing public elementary school and rent the building to the new Village School. The move essentially takes the public school independent, but it also gives every child in the community school choice under Vermont law – the right to attend any public or approved independent school, in state or out, with at least the full statewide tuition (currently over $12,000) following the child.

North Bennington joins 92 other Vermont "Tuition Towns" that have enjoyed school choice for 150 years by virtue of not having a public school within their district. These 92 communities have, over the decades, fed and fueled many of Vermont's brightest educational stars. St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr & Burton, the Lyndon Institute and the Thetford Academy are the oldest, but new schools catering to new customers with innovative programs, such as the Sharon Academy, the Long Trail School, and the Mountain School at Winhall (which was a public school similarly "taken independent" fourteen years ago), are thriving on the scene today. Vermont currently has over 100 diverse independent schools catering to the needs of 11% of the total school age population.

What's remarkable about the story of North Bennington on a national scale is that school choice is not being employed here as a last resort to save a failing school. In North Bennington, school choice is being embraced by the teachers, parents and community at large as a way to make a successful school even better.

The people of North Bennington came to the conclusion that in facing the challenges all Vermont schools are facing – a declining k-12 population, rising costs, and an unpopular, Montpelier-driven policy bent on school district consolidation -- they, like their neighbors in tuition towns, could do better for their kids and their community outside the conventional public school system.

Matthew Patterson of the Prudential Committee explained. "We're trying to look at this proactively. There is statute that allows us to do this. We're not closing a public school and opening a private school. We're closing a public school and opening an independent, publicly funded school, with much the same staff and everything else. But it gives us the opportunity to do things that independent schools can do."

Patterson specifically mentioned a greater capacity to fundraise under an independent model, the ability to counteract declining student numbers by attracting students from other tuition towns (or parents willing to pay the tuition on their own), and, importantly, as a way to preemptively block any attempt by the state to close or merge their community school or otherwise legislate away local control.

Don't forget, January 27th to February 2nd just happens to be National School Choice Week. It looks like Vermonters can be teachers as well as students in this particular national classroom. As Matthew Patterson testified, "If the interest of the State Board of Education, the Secretary of Education and the Governor is to see the best education that we can give to our students, then this ought to be a model that we look at, and not run away from."

Submitted by Vermont resident and president of the Ethan Allen Institute, Rop Roper.

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