School choice advocates tout Vermont tuition voucher program

Hundreds of school-age Vermonters with yellow scarves bustled through the Statehouse Wednesday, staring with wide eyes at paintings and statues of historic Vermont leaders in the Statehouse lobby.

The students who hailed from more than 30 independent schools were part of an annual nationwide celebration of school choice.

"We're celebrating every child in this room and their families, who have had the freedom to choose the school where their child fits in, where their child is comfortable, where their child is happy and where that child can learn to their maximum potential," said Leslie Hiner, lead attorney for EdChoice, an education reform organization.

The event was part of a National School Choice Week, a nationwide celebration including events that raise awareness for school choice and options for K-12 education.

Vermont's school choice system, which began in 1869, was one of the first in the country. In towns that do not have a public school, taxpayers fund tuition for students to attend any Vermont public, out-of-state or private institution they choose.

The system is similar to voucher programs developed in other states. Hiner, a proponent of school choice legislation in New Hampshire and Mississippi, says 29 states and Washington, D.C., have passed school choice legislation.

Students from Vermont independent schools spoke about their experiences.

Lucas Saunders, a senior at Compass School in Westminster, said he came to the school as a seventh-grader after spending years struggling in his public school, where he had difficulty sitting still and learning in the classroom.

"Me and my family were at the point where we didn't even know if I was going to finish high school," Saunders said. "Now, I am going on to college and have a career."

Saunders recently was accepted into the five colleges he applied to and plans to become a mechanical engineer. Saunders said this would not have been possible without Compass School. "They didn't just teach a class, they taught a student," he said.

Among the schools in attendance was Kurn Hattin, a boarding school in Westminster that was created to serve children "affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship, or other disruption in family life," according to its website. The school brought 18 students to the Statehouse.

Tom Oxholm of Kurn Hattin said students come to the school from all over the Northeast. "We're a tuition-free option to those both in and out of state that may not have other options for schools," Oxholm said. About 95 percent of the school's budget comes from charitable donations, he said.

Jacob Edwards, an eighth-grader at the school, came to Kurn Hattin five years ago from Harlem. The school took care of everything for him, he said, from classes to meals. "My school is a special place, another home," Edwards said. He is now applying to prep schools for high school.

Schools like Kurn Hattin bring to the state students who may stay after graduation, Oxholm said. "People who come up here appreciate what Vermont offers — the beauty of the environment, the freedom to think," he said.

Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester Center, who introduced the speakers, said the event was not political. But there is school choice legislation now under consideration. H.450 would expand access to publicly funded kindergarten through 12th grade education.

The bill allows public school students to attend another public school if their home school district does not offer a "particular academic course, sports program or sponsored extracurricular activity." The home district would be required to pay tuition to the receiving school district, which would be required to accept the student barring a problem with physical capacity.

Correction: Taxpayer-funded tuition for students from school choice towns cannot be used for religious schools. Also, the requirements of H.450 have been clarified.


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