Universal school choice is the answer to property tax crisis

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By Rob Roper

Here’s the puzzle the legislature must solve regarding education finance reform:

How do you lower the cost of educating our kids so we can cut taxes, while maintaining or improving high student outcomes? How do you stay within the lines of the Brigham Supreme Court decision that guarantees all students equal access to a tax base while respecting local control, yet also dealing with the reality that that Vermont’s K-12 system has lost 25,000 students since passage of Act 60?

The answer has been under Vermonters’ noses for nearly a century and a half. It’s parent driven school choice. Currently, 93 Vermont towns (about 5 percent of the K-12 population) take part in a program called “town tuitioning” that allows them to send their kids to any public or approved, non-religious independent school with the publicly financed tuition dollars following the child.

This system has been tested. We know it works. It is rooted in Vermont history and Vermont values. And, it is wildly popular in the communities that have it.

Here’s one example of why. In the Northeast Kingdom, where a predominant number of towns are “tuitioning,” parents of high school-aged students can choose between the independent town academies, St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute, smaller independent schools such as the East Burke School, Burke Mountain Academy (specializing in educating and training winter athletes), the Cornerstone School (focusing on kids with special needs), or from roughly eight public schools in Vermont and New Hampshire, all within reasonable driving distance. Similar choices exist for middle and elementary students.

Of course, these parents can choose any approved independent or public school regardless of geography, and some have used their tuition dollars to educate children out of state or even internationally. This kind of competition spurs diversity and excellence, and every Vermont child should be able to benefit from these kinds of options.

So, how does this apply to our current education financing puzzle?

Lowering the Cost. Vermont’s independent schools operate using more efficient, creative business models than their public school counterparts. As such, they are successfully educating-students for roughly 15 percent to 30 percent less than the public schools.

Just one year after the public elementary school in North Bennington “went independent” and adopted tuitioning based choice for the district, principal Tom Martin commented, “We have two more kids than last year, two less staff members, better programs, and an overall savings of right around $200,000.”

Better Outcomes. The communities that enjoy tuitioning have given rise to some of Vermont’s most dynamic education opportunities. Before the public school in Winhall “went independent” in 1998 and became a tuitioning town, the school had some of the lowest test scores in Vermont (as well as the state’s highest per pupil cost). But after a decade and a half of steady improvement (FY13), the independent Mountain School at Winhall eigth graders scored 13 points above the state average in reading, 16 points above state average in math, and 19 points above the state average in writing. And, the school is achieving these results are for significantly less than the public school average per-pupil cost.

Compatible with Brigham. Almost any other funding mechanism imaginable will run into problems with the Brigham court decision that spawned Act 60. However, a statewide education tax that funds tuition scholarships to every individual child would comply with Brigham. In fact, it would go beyond the fairness of Brigham’s requirement that every kid have equal access to the tax base, and ensure every kid gets equal funding for their education (with allowances made for children with special needs).

Greater Local Control. After Act 60, the idea of “local control” of education has become more of an illusion than a reality. Moving to a choice-based system should return power to the most local of levels – families and schools. Principals and local school boards need to be granted the freedom to innovate. Raising the money to fund tuitions will be a state responsibility, but how to spending it will be entirely local.

Consolidation. It is a sad fact that Vermont’s K-12 system has lost roughly 25,000 students (over 20 percent of the population) since the passage of Act 60. As a result, some level of consolidation is necessary. By empowering parents to vote with their feet in the best interests of their kids, we will better ensure that A) consolidation is an organic, people driven process and B) the best schools will be rewarded and supported.

Any major change in how we pay for and deliver education will be complicated, and moving to a school choice system will certainly be so as well. Many details will need to be worked out. But it is the simplest, most transparent, fairest option available, and the one most likely to provide the most satisfying rewards.

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Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org) He lives in Stowe.