Independent school statutes need review

Saturday October 13, 2012

The Vermont Board of Education is correct in contemplating proposed legislation to alter the legal process allowing public Vermont schools to become private independent schools that still receive public funding. And the public funding issue is the key point.

Some state board members say they want more leeway in approving or denying applications for school conversions, similar to what is proposed for North Bennington Graded School.

At its September meeting, the board discussed the motivation of public districts to effectively privatize their schools, the legal process, and the philosophical question of whether private schools that are not required to follow the same requirements as public schools should receive public tuition dollars. Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca also raised concerns during the meeting -- wondering whether it is good policy to allow a community to replace a public school with a private one overseen by an unelected board of trustees while still receiving public funding.

Vilaseca said at the meeting that such decisions on the local level can't help but have statewide ramifications for public school districts and education funding.

The officials said current state law apparently allows schools to make this change if criteria are met, such as voter approvals, but apparently doesn't allow the board the option of rejecting the application on policy grounds for the good of public education locally or statewide.

Although any legislative changes won't affect the North Bennington proposal, provided district voters on Oct. 23 approve closing the public school and opening a private one, state board members said there are three or four other school districts also considering a switch to a private school.

Previously, only Winhall in 1998 had closed a public school and reopened it as a private one. While NBGS voters have shown strong support for the change, the overall effect on public education of numerous similar changes in Vermont has to be considered. In fact, on the surface at least, it creates a situation in which the public is funding a private school not as accountable to the public, most likely only in a wealthier district capable of raising additional money for the school and its programs.

This is not the same as creating a private school, in which parents pay the entire cost of sending their children there. North Bennington school officials have argued, however, that pressure from the state in recent years to consolidate some of Vermont's districts for efficiency purposes has them wondering about the future of NBGS. And they argue a private board would have greater leeway in promoting long-term planning and maintaining the school's building and programs -- and adding to the district's reputation for quality education.

This is not a cut and dry issue, which is why the state board should have more authority over the closing of a public school for a private one in light of the educational needs and priorities of the entire state.


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