Google "choice debate," and the results pertain to two controversies: whether women should be able to choose abortion, and whether students and their parents should be able to choose which public school to attend. Add "Vermont" to the search term, and it yields just one issue: school choice, known in Green Mountain State vernacular as tuitioning.
As the school district merger timeline in Act 46 bears down on communities, a narrower school choice issue is emerging and proving as divisive as the broader question.
Because the state doesn't allow school districts that pay tuition for students to attend school elsewhere to partner up with those that operate schools, some districts feel they have no option but to give up choice. Lawmakers have drawn up legislation to address the issue.
More than a dozen bills on the subject of choice await action by the House Education Committee. Some would eliminate tuitioning in every school district, and some would expand it to every student in the state. Some would let operating and tuitioning districts merge, and some would let choice districts merge even though they have choice for different grade levels.
Because the issue spans the political landscape in Vermont, committee Chair David Sharpe said he is inclined to wait until next session to take up the issue.
"I think it would be a war if we pick it up, particularly in connection with Act 46. I think there is a philosophical divide in the chamber," Sharpe said.
Issue took some by surprise
Some House members have been upset since the State Board of Education ruled late last year that merging school districts can't operate classrooms and pay tuition in the same grades in the same school district. Under Act 46, the board is responsible for approving school district merger proposals, then the decision on whether to proceed is in the hands of the voters in affected districts.
These lawmakers say they didn't realize when they voted for Act 46 last year that tuitioning and operating districts wouldn't be allowed to join together. There is nothing in Act 46 about this issue, but education law that has been on the books for decades says that two different systems cannot exist in a unified school district.
"Even prior to Act 46 such districts were not allowed under law — they could not operate and have choice for the same grades in the same district. The law has not changed at all," said Stephan Morse, chair of the state board.
The argument against both operating and tuitioning in the same grades is that it's expensive and defeats the point of scaling up school districts through unification to gain greater cost efficiencies.
But some House lawmakers disagree and have filed H.579, which would allow both tuitioning and operating of the same grades in the same unified school district.
"If you are concerned you will lose students to another school because of choice, you will have a better school," argued Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, a co-sponsor.
"It has the potential to make all schools better," she added, explaining that Vermont's shrinking school enrollments together with choice could help speed up the consolidation that needs to happen.
"We use the word 'consolidation' when we know we are talking about small underfunded schools that would do better if they shut down, and if given choice it will happen sooner rather than later."
Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, threw his support behind H.579 at a news conference last month featuring a bipartisan group of House members. He said he knows families with students in the Brattleboro public schools who have been classified as needing special education who then move their children to smaller schools where they flourish and are no longer considered special ed students.
"We need to empower parents to send their children where they need to be, and we will get a better educational outcome," Hebert said. He wants lawmakers to "clarify the statute to allow tuitioning towns to keep their choice and ask (the Agency of Education) to continue to support a 150-year tradition."
Stakes are high for schools that get tuition
It isn't only independent schools and towns that offer choice that are concerned; some public schools worry they will lose tuition students and therefore funding.
Over the last five years, the Craftsbury school district has tripled the number of tuition students it serves. "It enriches our school community in many ways," Principal Merri Greenia said at the news conference.
In fiscal year 2016, Craftsbury ranked No. 22 among Vermont's 270-plus school districts in per pupil spending, at $16,934. If the district loses students, the per pupil price tag will go up.
If Craftsbury loses tuition students it will also lose $500,000, according to David Kelley, a Hazen Union High School board member. Hazen is in Hardwick, which is surrounded by Craftsbury and four high school tuition districts: Wolcott, Walden, Stannard and Elmore.
Elmore pays tuition to send its high school students to other towns. File photo
Kelley said tuition students from Wolcott and Stannard bring in $605,000 to Hazen Union High School. He is concerned that if the towns around his district merge with any other district, the public school will suffer.
"So, Elmore goes with People's (Academy) in Morristown, and choice is gone," he said. "If Wolcott and Walden go different directions, Hazen loses a half a million from their budget — what do we cut? That is six teachers. Craftsbury loses a half a million — what do they get rid of? This bill could devastate two good high schools. That is nuts."
Walden is considering unifying with Peacham, which tuitions grades seven through 12; Danville, which operates all grades; and Barnet, which tuitions grades nine through 12, according to an October report.
Greenia, the Craftsbury principal, said the State Board of Education decision puts school districts in a Catch-22: "You can have school choice, except if you do you can't merge, and if you can't merge we'll tell you what to do."
Specialized options exist for some
Act 46 requires the education secretary to propose a way to merge remaining school districts in an effort to create a sustainable governance structure, but the agency doesn't have the authority to require that districts merge, according to Stephanie Bracken, a spokesperson for the agency. The state board is responsible for considering the secretary's proposal and making a statewide plan in 2018.
If a school district can prove to the state board that it can meet the goals of Act 46 — to give students equal access to quality educational opportunities at an affordable price — and has discussed with nearby districts ways to promote the goals throughout the region, then it can submit a plan to the state board to keep its current setup.
In addition, said Donna Russo-Savage, who works on Act 46 implementation for the Agency of Education, there are limitations on the state board when it draws up plans. As for blending districts, she said, "Act 46 protects districts from a forced merger with a district that has a different operating and tuitioning pattern. For example, Act 46 prohibits the state board from requiring a K-6 district to merge with a neighboring K-8 district."
Options are on the table for school districts that tuition students to blend with ones that operate classrooms and form unified school districts. Known as a side-by-side merger, this requires two alike districts available to partner with two others, and at least one of the couplings must operate all grades.
The format can work for any number of pairs. For example, two districts operating pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and two districts that operate all grades could join two other districts that operate only pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Each pair would merge into a single district, making a supervisory union with three new school districts.
But these configurations simply aren't available in many areas, and that means some choice communities would need to give up choice in one or more grades to match up with another choice district.
Rep. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, said his community's supervisory union, Windsor Southeast, is one where a side-by-side merger won't work.
"We have four towns in a supervisory union, and all the school boards are trying to preserve it," he said. The problem is that it has three choice districts and only one that operates. "Unless the law is changed, we are stuck. We will have to throw out a perfectly good SU that everyone is happy with because we can't maintain this option going forward."
Similarly, unification discussions among Strafford, Sharon and Thetford have hit a roadblock.
Strafford operates kindergarten through eighth grade; Sharon and Thetford operate through sixth. All three offer choice for the rest of the grades. If these districts merge, Strafford would have to stop operating grades seven and eight and vote for choice in those years. Strafford also would have to give up its designation of Thetford Academy as its public high school — meaning Thetford would no longer be required to take Strafford special education students — because Sharon does not designate a high school.
Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, has co-sponsored legislation on district mergers. File photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger
That is why Thetford Reps. Tim Briglin and Jim Masland, both Democrats, introduced H.731 to allow these school districts to form a unified district that both operates and tuitions grades seven and eight. The bill is sitting in the Education Committee's queue.
But it may be too late to save the merger talks. Strafford residents are fed up and don't want to stop operating the two grades. On Town Meeting Day they voted for a resolution urging the repeal of Act 46.
Giving Act 46 more time to play out
After surveying the bills sitting in his committee, Sharpe said he thinks a number of them are about "easy outs for their district."
By this summer, nearly half a dozen mergers will have been approved by the state board and gone before voters. Many of the communities surging ahead have been talking with one another and thinking about this long before Act 46.
"Obviously the nine or 10 (merger proposals) that have been done to date have been the easier ones. It will get more difficult as time goes on," said Morse.
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the framework in Act 46 fits some school districts and supervisory unions better than others. Still, plenty of options exist, he said, acknowledging that "those options don't often provide for a district to stay exactly as it is."
For now, Sharpe would like to give communities room to continue to have the hard discussions that Act 46 appears to be driving. Later, he said, he is "open to those kinds of conversations."
Morse is grateful for the time. "Based on what we have seen to date, we should let Act 46 play out. If there is a need to amend and change the law as we get further into the process, there will be time to do it."