In the state legislature there are at least three or four bills being produced which deal with drastically revising our present education system. One, when it gets to the floor, will call for the elimination of all existing school unions and require the creation of all new school districts across the state. Another one does not revise the governance system, but it does put really strong limits on how much public tuition money can go to a private or other independent school before the school has to conform to regulation by the State Board of Education.
Because in simpler times our school system evolved in a piece-meal fashion with not a lot of attention to the long term picture, we have a system that is beginning to disintegrate. This was not much of a problem when education was actually inexpensive and schools were only expected to produce students who could read, write and calculate arithmetic; plus, hopefully, have good manners and a sense of the need for good citizenship. Schools beyond grade eight were a rarity and not considered to be all that important for most kids. Bennington County, for example, now has about 15 or 20 public elementary schools but only two public high schools. We have three private high schools as well as several private elementary schools. (This number seems to change yearly.) Recently, the phenomenon of the "independent school" has appeared.
The language of state laws and regulations do not adequately define what exists. "Public" schools are easy. They are 100 percent supported by tax money and have "blind admissions" policies. "Blind admissions" is jargon for "every student who lives in the district must be accepted for enrollment without question." Public schools are governed by an elected board that is responsible to the voters.
"Private" schools are another matter. They are what the name suggests. They are supported by non-public funds. Their governing boards of trustees are appointed and are not in any way responsible to the voters of the district that they happen to be in. Their admissions policies are as open or restrictive as they choose to make them. They are not compelled to admit any student that they feel doesn’t meet their criteria. A few private schools are "sectarian" or religious in nature. Their admissions policies usually center on the student’s commitment to act and learn according to the principles which the school was created to perpetuate. Some are less restrictive than others, but all have the right as private organizations to admit who they choose.
A few years ago education suddenly became very expensive for dozens of reasons. Some smaller districts closed their schools and began to pay tuition for their students to attend other schools whether they were public or private. This created a situation in which some parents had complete school choice for their children but most did not.
State laws and regulations referred to private schools as "independent" schools. This was not a problem until very recently. Several districts around the state decided to drop out of the state education system and become "independent" schools. Their motives varied, but they all felt that they could in some way provide a better education to their students. The state education establishment opposed these schools from being formed, but in the end there was no law to prevent them. The state reluctantly agreed to their existence.
A new creature has evolved. These independents are not actually private because their funding comes from public tax money in the form of tuition. Their board of governors is not elected, but the voters do have some control because they have to approve the budget for the requested tuition. The state did impose the rule that they must have "blind admission" for students who live in the district that became independent.
Herein lies the rub. When a district becomes approved as an independent, all students now have school choice. They can choose to attend the independent school, or, if admitted, any other school they choose. Their tuition money travels with them. This has fueled across the state an increase in the demand for universal public school choice. Parents resent that they have less choice for their children than other parents. Another sticky point is the matter of just how much public tuition money can be accepted by a private school and still remain outside the governance of the State Board of Education.
What is at stake here is the fate of millions of tax dollars, the limits of the state’s authority over its’ schools, the conflicting interests of parents who want the best for their children, and most importantly, the need to guarantee a sound education to the 90,000 or so students who are the chips in this game.
Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.