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McClaughry: Education Independence


The time of testing for Vermont’s non-sectarian independent schools is now at hand.

Always alarmed at any threat of competition, the public school establishment has been shocked by - North Bennington. In that village the school board increasingly worried that pressure for consolidation, emanating from Montpelier, would force the closure of their beloved village K-8 school.

Over three years the school board and voters preemptively closed their public school. In its place, they issued vouchers to their children to attend whichever public or non-sectarian independent school their parents found most suitable.

In response, the legislature mandated a study committee to “research and consider both the opportunities and challenges created by closing a public school with the intention or result of reopening it as an approved independent school that serves essentially the same population of students and receives public tuition dollars.”

The committee met three times, but its chair, then-Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca, did not make an effort to reach any sort of consensus or even take votes. Instead, he decided to write his own report to the legislature.

It appears that the aims of Vilaseca’s report are at least two-fold: to make sure that the North Bennington public-to-independent school conversion never happens again, and to draw Vermont’s independent schools far into the grasp of the Agency of Education.

His first recommendation is commendably clear: “Forbid [by legislation] privatization of a public school,” by which he means closing a public school and simultaneously facilitating creation of a local independent school to receive student tuition payments.

To anyone but a veteran public school bureaucrat, the startling thing about Vilaseca’s report is the implication that any concerned parent would even think about sending a child to an independent school which does not offer state-certified teachers, subsidized lunches, and full compliance with the countless state and federal mandates.

My view of this effort to forbid school boards from making the decision that North Bennington’s made is that it’s yet another attempt to protect a government near-monopoly. Last week the Senate Education committee began taking testimony on translating some or all of Vilaseca’s report into legislation.

Governor Shumlin’s parents had the means to send him to an independent high school in Massachusetts. The governor himself served on the board of the independent Putney Grammar School. If he sees a bill coming to embody Vilaseca’s recommendations, I hope that he acts to preserve and enlarge that same opportunity for more of today’s youngsters, to make the most of their talents in a school, public or independent, that best meets their needs and dreams.