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Declining Enrollment, Part 5: The Ins And Outs Of School Choice

Angela Evancie
Dexter Mahaffey, head of the Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, subs in a Chinese class on March 20. Between 10 and 20 percent of the school's students come from school choice towns that contribute tuition.

Debate about school funding has long involved discussions about tuitioning, where students attend schools in districts other than their own with funding from their home districts.

These can be public schools, independent schools — even, in some cases, schools out of state or in Canada. In South Burlington, there are many schools enrolling school choice students just miles away from one another, including the public South Burlington High School and the independent Vermont Commons School.

South Burlington High School

South Burlington High School draws school choice students for all sorts of reasons. Some don’t have a high school in their town, or even in their district, so they have to go elsewhere. Others do, but still make the switch. Take this small cross-section of students:

Silva Warren, South Hero: “I shadowed here and I shadowed other places and I just liked the way this one felt.”

Kaleb Radford, Georgia: “My mom works in South Burlington, two miles down the road. My dad works in Burlington, little ways away, so it was a convenience factor also.”

Ramzi Stech, Georgia: “It had all the resources that the other, like, Chittenden County schools did, and it had less students, so it kind of felt like a smaller community.”

There are 146 school choice students enrolled at SBHS - that's 16 percent of the school's population.

Jennafer Wetmore, Hinseburg: “I chose to go to South Burlington because I went to middle school here, and then my parents decided to move, and I didn’t want to switch schools yet.”

Isabella Fearn, also of South Hero, was drawn by the extracurriculars.

“Their school programs as far as like, the clubs, and the sports and the drama, were really important to me when I came,” she says.

Fearn, it should be noted, is wearing a fabulous one-piece leopard-print suit. Turn’s out it’s for the school’s Spirit Week.

“Today is Pajama Day, and I guess I was one of the only few who dressed up,” she says, to laughter from classmates.

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
South Burlington High School doesn't recruit specific school choice student, but Principal Patrick Burke says the school does try to attract students from other towns in general, because their tuition dollars allow the school to expand programming.


There are 146 school choice students enrolled at SBHS – that’s 16 percent of the school's population. Each year, the school accepts one student from a non-tuitioning town; the rest come from tuitioning towns, meaning South Burlington received money from their home districts. This year it was $13,752 per student. Next year, it will be $14,297, according to the Vermont Department of Education.

Principal Patrick Burke says school choice students enhance the geographic diversity of the school, and make it more welcoming to all students. And he says SBHS does recruit – not specific students, but students broadly.

“You know, if I get 20 more students from Grand Isle County than we’re expecting, well, because they come with the requisite resources, I can add staffing, I can make sure that we have the programs that we need,” Burke says. “And that goes all the way down to student activities.”

"It's really important to remember that ... we’re talking about very regulated out-caps to protect small schools, to make sure that opportunities are going to exist at the schools that students leave." - Patrick Burke, South Burlington High School principal

Burke knows that school choice is a sensitive policy issue – especially now, when there’s so much concern about small schools getting too small. Some towns are scrambling to fund education, or considering consolidation. Just last week, the Vermont Houseapproved legislation that would restrain education spending throughout the state, and mandate the consolidation of smaller school districts by 2017.

But Burke doesn’t think school choice exacerbates the problems many schools are having with shrinking populations.

“I think that when we look at it terms of Vermont and this area, it’s really important to remember that we’re talking about public-to-public school choice, we’re talking about very regulated out-caps to protect small schools, to make sure that opportunities are going to exist at the schools that students leave,” he says.

Not all school choice is public-to-public, though. Some districts let students take their district funding wherever they choose.

Vermont Commons School

Vermont Commons School is an independent day school. It’s also in South Burlington, and it enrolls 10 to 20 percent of its students through school choice.

“It’s small, it’s weird, but it’s great,” says junior Elijah Hinds. “I tend to normally say that.”

Hinds went to elementary school in Grand Isle, now he’s here at VCS, where he’s really into Model United Nations.

“I really love Model UN, and I try to go to every conference I can as long as volleyball doesn’t conflict with it,” he says.

Yearly tuition at Vermont Commons starts at $20,000. But school choice students bring $13,752 from their districts. Their parents make up the rest or apply for financial aid, and pay extra for big trips abroad.

The school is focused on rigorous academics and experiential learning. And sometimes that learning takes place in exotic locales. Junior Auburn Sendra, also from Grand Isle, reminisces about a recent trip to Belize.

“We caught birds and bats, and then we picked cacao and coffee beans. We did home stays,” she says. “I mean, it was really great.”

Yearly tuition at Vermont Commons starts at $20,000. But school choice students bring that $13,752 from their districts. Their parents make up the rest, or apply for financial aid – and pay extra for big trips abroad.

Dexter Mahaffey, the head of school, says admission to VCS is need blind – and they rarely know if applicants come from tuitioning towns.

“We’re just looking for students who are a great match for our curriculum, and for whom we’re a great match as a school,” he says.  

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
Auburn Sendra, a Vermont Commons junior from Grand Isle, says she appreciates the small-school feel at VCS. There are under 100 students at the independent school, but unlike other small schools in the state, VCS is growing.

Like Patrick Burke at SBHS, Mahaffey appreciates the geographic diversity that school choice kids bring. Both schools actually run at least one bus to areas, such as Grand Isle, that send a lot of students.

Mahaffey says his school doesn’t court school choice students, but he readily acknowledges that VCS relies on their tuition.

“Absolutely,” he says. “We are exposed to that, and that is risk exposure, and if the state voted it out tomorrow, we’d be in a pickle. And it would be the kind of pickle that meant you're losing students, you're losing employees."

Mahaffey spent seven years in Kentucky, where he says per-pupil spending is as little as a quarter of the size of Vermont’s.

"If the state voted it [tuitioning for school choice towns] out tomorrow, we'd be in a pickle. And it would be the kind of pickle that meant you're losing students, you're losing employees." - Dexter Mahaffey, head of Vermont Commons School

“So, I know it’s expensive here, and I know our property taxes are tough, and I get all that, but phew, you do get what you pay for,” he says.

Or, in the words of Elijah Hinds, the Model UN student who may very well have a future in politics:

“I mean, I think that we need to invest in education. And I feel like we’d be really limited if everyone from Grand Isle or from any county, for that matter, that doesn’t have a high school, was being forced to go to one certain school,” he says. “That would make the schools there bigger, but it would also make it harder for us to pursue specific interests.”

With about 90 students, VCS is definitely a small school. The day I visited, Dexter Mahaffey was subbing for the Chinese instructor. But unlike so many other small schools around the state, it’s growing. Next year VCS will welcome its first class of sixth graders – including, maybe, school choice students. 

Correction 4/9/2015 12:35 p.m. The original version of this story incorrectly stated that South Burlington High School has 25 school choice students, and those students make up 20 percent of the school population. 

Angela Evancie serves as Vermont Public's Senior VP of Content, and was the Director of Engagement Journalism and the Executive Producer of Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.
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