School choice under fire
Nov 03, 2016 | 4281 views | 0 0 comments | 250 250 recommendations | email to a friend | print
There’s been a very important school choice issue that’s been lost on many during the leadup to next week’s elections. The Vermont State Board of Education has proposed new rules that could bring an end to school choice in several Vermont communities, including Stratton, Winhall, Dover, Wardsboro, Halifax, Marlboro, Searsburg, Readsboro, and Stamford.

The proposed rules would prohibit local school districts from paying tuition to independent schools, including the Mountain School, the Grammar School, Stratton Mountain School, Burr & Burton, and out-of-state schools like Northfield Mount Hermon and the Academy at Charlemont, unless they are restructured to operate like Vermont public schools. That would include requiring all teachers be Vermont certified, and all schools accept special education students. While there may be merit to those proposals, there could also be significant consequences as well. The new rules could make independent schools opt to not meet those rules, which would make them inaccessible to local students and result in the loss of school choice. The rules have the potential to be even more disruptive to local school districts than Act 46, and the changes would happen without any legislative action whatsoever. Instead, they would be enacted by a board that is not accountable to the electorate or the Legislature. State board members are appointed by the governor.

State representatives Oliver Olsen and Laura Siblia have expressed concerns and and asked the state board to slow down its rule change until all of the impacts can be studied.

Olsen, an independent from Londonderry, is leading an effort to convince the state board to reconsider its proposal. He recently sent a letter to the chairs of the board and the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules, seeking a delay in the rulemaking process so that the impacts can be fully assessed.

Olsen, who represents several school choice towns, said “These rules, should they take effect, would have a devastating impact on the unique, and highly successful educational ecosystem in our region.”

In his letter, Olsen pointed out that the board of education was proposing a policy change contrary to legislative intent, and said, “It is inappropriate for a policy change of this magnitude to be implemented through an administrative rule change.” Olsen estimated that the proposed rules could trigger a devaluation of up to $196 million in the residential real estate market in his area. He also raised concerns that the board has not provided a complete economic statement, as required under state law. “The proposed rules would not only hurt our kids, they would lead to a devaluation of the real estate market and destabilize our regional economy.”

Sibilia, a Dover independent whose district comprises multiple choice towns, is concerned the proposed rule changes simply pile on to the changes already being forced on towns and school districts by Act 46. “The timing of this far-reaching rule change is hard to understand given Act 46 specifically providing communities that have school choice the option to keep it. Changing the game on communities working to implement this sweeping legislation is unacceptable. Doing so without having any sense of the impacts on kids is inexcusable.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is running for governor, also weighed in against the rule changes. In a press release, he called on the state board to withdraw the proposal. “School choice and tuitioning in communities that do not have their own schools is a very attractive feature for working families to relocate to Vermont. We should be expanding choices to attract more families and entrepreneurs, not reducing them. It is a policy that has been part of our educational system for over 140 years. The state Board of Education should withdraw these rules and rewrite them to support, preserve and expand educational choice in Vermont. As governor, I’ll appoint board members who are open-minded about school choice and value the role it can play in growing our economy and retaining and recruiting more working-age families.”

Sibilia, Olsen, and Scott are not the only politicians running for office who understand the impacts of these proposals on school districts and Vermont families. But they are some of the few who have spoken out against the state board’s proposals.

School choice is important to many here in the Deerfield Valley and around the state. As voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they would be wise to consider who has spoken out in support of school choice and against these rule changes and vote accordingly.
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