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Does Consolidating Districts Mean Losing School Choice? NEK Says No

Charlotte Albright
Lyndon Institute is an independent school that enrolls many public students from surrounding towns using tuition vouchers.

Vermont’s new school consolidation law is raising concerns about school choice. Currently, students who live in towns that do not operate schools may take their state tuition dollars elsewhere, even to private academies.

But there is confusion about whether — and how — districts can hold onto choice as they combine under the new law.

Audio for this piece will be available by approximately 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 13

One small Northeast Kingdom hamlet — Kirby — is  trying to team up with neighboring towns to walk that double line.

Here’s the challenge they face. Under the new school consolidation law, Act 46, the state does not abolish school choice. Nor does it expand it.  However, the chair of the State Board of Education, Stephan Morse, interprets Vermont law to mean that a district supporting its own school cannot also send tuition dollars to other towns, or to private schools.

“Looking at the law, the new law with existing law, with some legal advice, we came to the conclusion that a new school district cannot provide both school choice and an operated school for the same grades,” Morse said.

At a recent Board meeting, the Director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, Mill Moore, asked Morse to take a more “neutral” position on the relationship between consolidation and choice.

Morse is standing firm.

But what if a cluster of towns that don’t operate schools form their own district? Would school choice then remain available to every one of those students?

That’s the question the School Board of Kirby is asking. The small farming community closed its one-room schoolhouse many years ago. So Kirby sends tuition to public schools or private academies nearby.

Miles Etter chairs the Kirby school board and teaches at Lyndon Institute, a private school that accepts public tuition vouchers.

On a recent morning in the sunny cafeteria, taking a break from a study hall he supervises, Etter talked about Kirby’s dual priorities, to keep education affordable without restricting choice.

“You know, right now we are living in the world of “we want choice” and we are going to do what we can do right now. This is a pathway that’s been provided.” Etter said.

The pathway he’s talking about is mapped out on the Agency of Education website as a “Regional Education District Side By Side Merger.”

Following those rules, Kirby has invited ten neighboring towns, none of which operate schools, to form a new district. They are Guildhall, Maidstone, Victory, Granby, East Haven, Bloomfield, Brunswick, Lemmington, Norton, and Ferdinand.  That district, which would still have school choice, would join Canaan, which has its own school, in a "side-by-side" merger.  The new hybrid district would belong to the Essex North Supervisory Union.  Kirby currently is part of Essex Caledonia Supervisory Union. ECSU Superintendent Mike Clark thinks the merger would streamline governance and expand course offerings.

“There are a lot of opportunities that we have in front of us,” Clark, a supporter of consolidation, said.

And many parents in the Northeast Kingdom believe those opportunities should continue to include private schools, including but not limited to St. Johnsbury Academy.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
A portrait of Thaddeus Fairbanks, the scale manufacturer who helped found St. Johnsbury Academy, hangs in the school's entrance hall. Many students from area towns that do not have their own high schools choose to attend the private academy using public tuition money.

As students hurry to classes in historic but well equipped buildings — girls wearing neatly tucked in collared blouses, boys wearing ties — Headmaster Tom Lovett explains why mixing private and public students here makes financial and educational sense. 

“We can enroll students from around the world, from 27 different countries and from 51 different towns, but if students who don’t have the economic resources to pay for a independent school tuition can’t access all the opportunities here, we become less diverse, we become a less interesting place to be educated,” said Lovett.

Lovett sees nothing wrong with Kirby spearheading an all-choice school district, but doubts it would work in larger towns. So he's been exploring other ways to partner with new districts so that students may choose courses and extracurricular activities from either a public or private school. 

Clarification 11/13/15 4:28: This story was revised to clarify Kirby's proposed move to Essex North Supervisory Union. 

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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