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Years of acrimony over vouchers animate the dispute over Education Secretary Zoie Saunders

A woman with blonde hair and a light blue suit is seen through other people in a crowd. She stands near a flag and large painting and looks off to the left.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Zoie Saunders was announced as Vermont's new education secretary by Gov. Phil Scott on March 22, 2024.

Zoie Saunders may be a fresh face in Montpelier, but her appointment to lead Vermont’s Agency of Education has resurfaced old grievances surrounding the role of private school vouchers in the state’s educational landscape.

Her arrival comes at a moment of heightened anxiety about the future of Vermont’s schools, as district budgets fail at a rate not seen in well over a decade. And recent U.S. Supreme Court cases allowing religious schools to participate in the state’s voucher program have reignited old debates about the kind of oversight the state should impose on private schools that receive public money.

In this context, Saunders’ critics have homed in one part of her resume: her nearly seven-year stint as a high-ranking executive at Charter Schools USA, a privately held, for-profit charter school management company.

“There's been the specter of public education and making sure that we are doing what we can to bolster it and support it,” said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth. “In light of all of that, you drop a nominee who seems to have very little experience in the public sector, mostly with charter schools. And I think it was predictable that there would be somewhat of a backlash to this nomination.”

Saunders has said repeatedly that neither she nor Gov. Phil Scott, who nominated her to the post, have any interest in bringing charter schools to Vermont. And she’s generally side-stepped questions about which side she might take in Vermont’s decades-long public-private dispute, instead turning to the refrain that charter schools are defined as public schools in every state that she's worked in.

But that’s done little to mollify her critics — who include basically every major public school advocacy group in the state, including Vermont’s largest union, the Vermont-National Education Association.

House testimony sparks rebuttal

Saunders’ appointment is subject to confirmation in the Vermont Senate. On Wednesday of last week, the Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 to recommend Saunders’ be confirmed. But testimony held that same day in the House Education Committee most clearly underlined the public-private proxy war at play.

There, House lawmakers heard from Krista Huling, the former chair of the State Board of Education, who accused Scott’s office, in 2018, of meddling inappropriately in the last search for an education secretary.

The state board and the governor share power over the secretary’s selection. The board conducts the search and selects three finalists, and the governor makes the final call. Huling noted that Scott had lobbied the board in 2018 for candidates that had private sector experience, and claimed Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, summoned her to his office after the board had selected its finalists to request that a person who had not applied be considered. She said she declined the request.

Huling also argued that Scott offers “no vision” for public education.

“To the public, Scott tells people to send a message to Montpelier by voting down budgets, but offers no fixes. I am convinced that he wants the system to collapse,” she told lawmakers.

In an interview with Vermont Public, Huling said Saunders’ appointment “broke my heart.”

“Our education system right now is at a tipping point. And she just doesn't have the skills or experience to step into the job and do what needs to be done,” she said. “When I heard the appointment, it really just confirmed my worst fears about Scott and his education policy, that he truly is in favor of voucher systems.”

Huling’s testimony so enraged the governor’s office that Gibbs on Friday sent a lengthy rebuttal of her testimony to the House committee — and appended a 68-page document compiling his correspondence with Huling in 2018.

According to Gibbs, the two did indeed have a meeting where he asked her if the board would consider re-opening its process. A current Agency of Education employee and several external prospects had contacted Scott’s office after missing the application window, Gibbs said, and had hoped to be considered. Huling “very reasonably” said no, he recounted, and he did not press the matter.

“The discussion moved on. That’s it. There’s nothing unusual about this,” he wrote to lawmakers.

Gibbs also noted that Huling had resigned from the state board in 2019 to volunteer for former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe’s gubernatorial campaign. (Holcombe lost in the Democratic primary to Dave Zuckerman; Zuckerman lost to Scott in the general.)

“As you know, it is exceedingly rare for a Chief of Staff to weigh in on testimony – especially by someone with such a clear political agenda,” Gibbs wrote. “In this case, however, the statements made were so egregiously misleading I am compelled to respond.”

Scott’s office also pointed to articles in the Vermont press from the time of Holcombe’s run, examining the candidate’s claims that Scott was pushing to expand vouchers statewide. The governor has long said he’s in favor of expanding choice where individual communities want it, but has never proposed a concrete plan to do so statewide. Dan French, his education secretary at the time, did float the idea — but Scott at the time made clear he wasn’t pursuing the matter.

Huling has said that her political agenda is simply a “strong public education system.” And her criticisms cross the partisan aisle. She told Vermont Public she’s reached out to lawmakers to express her dismay over the Saunders nomination and been told to “trust the process.” But she said she’s struggling to do that. When she was on the state board and the panel tried to enact new regulations on private schools, powerful Democrats in the Senate responded by threatening to strip the board of much of its authority.

“I found there was quite a close relationship between Senate (Education) leadership and with private schools,” she said.

Familiar faces

The lawmakers who played a key role in the fights of yesteryear are once again major players. Baruth, who was chairperson of the Senate Education Committee at the time, now leads the Senate. And Bennington Sen. Brian Campion, a Democrat, who was a lead sponsor on the bill that would have gutted the state board, is now chair of the chamber’s education committee.

Campion sided with the Senate Education Committee’s two Republicans members to recommend Saunders last week. The other two Democrats — Sens. Martine Gulick and Nader Hashim — voted against her appointment.

Campion told Vermont Public his enthusiasm for Saunders has nothing to do with independent schools. Fears that Saunders might be more oriented toward school choice are “absolutely unfounded,” he said. And he argued that there was little evidence the upper chamber worked to protect private schools.

“I can't think of any piece of legislation that the Senate has passed that would be considered pro-independent school,” he said. The bill he had sponsored to curtail the state board’s authority was about giving the governor more authority over education, Campion said, which he believes would be more democratic, since members of the state board are not elected.

Just last year, the House passed a bill that would have enacted new regulations on publicly-funded private schools. It died in Campion’s committee. The Bennington Democrat was bitterly criticized for his role in torpedoing the legislation by public school advocates, and thanked just as heartily by those who support private school choice.

Baruth, for his part, does not dispute that the Senate has been a friend to independent schools — or at least friendlier to them than the Legislature’s lower chamber.

“Going back to the 15 years that I've been here, it has been true that the House has generally been more, you know, enthusiastic about trying to regulate and bring independent schools under the same rubric as the public schools,” he said. But the point of such reforms has always been to cut independent schools off from public tuition dollars, Baruth said, which he does not support.

Baruth said he’d intervened when the state board attempted to aggressively regulate private schools during Huling’s tenure because he believed they’d overstepped. But he noted he’d later helped write compromise legislation, which went into effect last year, prohibiting independent schools who receive vouchers from discriminating against students with disabilities.

“I would say I am pro-public schools, I'm pro-private schools or independent schools and I'm pro-homeschools,” he said. “I have always thought that there are multiple ways that we deliver education in Vermont. And I think they're all to the good.”

Baruth has said repeatedly that Democratic leadership in the Senate is not taking a position on whether Saunders should be confirmed or not, and on Friday said he had not yet decided how he would vote. The full Senate is scheduled to vote on Saunders’ confirmation this Tuesday.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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