Sen. Dick McCormack, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, launched his tenure in that position by introducing a bill clearly designed to put as many general purpose independent schools under the big fat thumb of the Education Agency in Montpelier.
The bill (S.91) requires that any independent school, one-third or more of whose students are paid for by tuition towns, must accept for admission on a space-available basis all publicly funded students who apply. The school must hire only licensed teachers and administrators. The school must require all students -- whether or not attending on public funding -- to take any standardized tests required by the state. It must offer special education in at least four disability categories, and provide free and reduced-price meals to all students.
It's significant that McCormack didn't discuss his bill prior to introduction with the independent schools that would be seriously affected. He waited until a school vacation, and a national independent school conference out of state, to put the bill in the hopper. He then immediately announced hearings on it, led off with the public school lobbyists hostile to independent schools.
McCormack protests that he has no intention of sneaking the bill through before the victims can get organized. But when Michael Livingston, head of Sharon Academy, asked when the committee would like to have his promised memo on the bill's impact, McCormack replied "ASAP.
McCormack argues that the bill is needed to "level the playing field." He is concerned that tuition town students choosing independent schools take public dollars from public schools, and are thus "undermining public schools." Whether the independent schools are a better educational fit for the students who chose them does not seem to have occurred to McCormack.
His goal, obviously, is to suppress the competition independent schools pose to lackluster public schools. Not surprisingly, that is precisely the goal of the public school education blob, worried about a shortage of students that might cause layoffs of some dues-paying Vermont-NEA unionized teachers. Instead of making their schools more attractive to tuition students, they are pleased to have the state clamp down on their competitors.
Mill Moore, the executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, saw through this smokescreen right away. "These proposals would fundamentally alter the relationship between the State and independent schools that has prevailed since the public education system was introduced shortly after the Civil War."
For 20 years Bernier Mayo was headmaster of St. Johnsbury Academy. In an op-ed in the Caledonian-Record on Feb. 28, Mayo wrote "The real reason that S.91 has been introduced is to take choice away from the nearly one hundred towns and thousands of parents who now enjoy choice among public and independent schools. And that is the latest bullying strategy of the legislative raw power of the Vermont-NEA teachers union that is losing members on two fronts: Vermont's declining student population, and parents, wherever they have choice, voting with their feet to send their kids to independent schools."
McCormack has two more sponsors of S.91 on his five member committee. That may be enough to send the bill to the full Senate. If so, the bill will be open to amendments of any provision in the education title.
Here's a useful amendment some friend of school choice ought to offer: "Any parent may choose to send the student to any approved non-sectarian public or independent school, with a state-established tuition payment." (The payment follows the child.)
What's interesting about this proposal is that the Vermont Senate approved it during the 1997 debate on Act 60. The vote was 18-12. The House, then controlled by a Vermont-NEA teacher, refused to consider it, and it died in conference committee.
The 1997 amendment was offered by Sen. Jeb Spaulding (D-Washington), currently the Administration Secretary for Gov. Peter Shumlin. Four currently serving senators voted against it: Cummings (D-Washington), MacDonald (D-Orange) and two of the four sponsors of S.91, McCormack (D-Windsor) and Sears (D-Bennington).
Supporting the universal choice amendment were Spaulding, currently serving senators Doyle (R-Washington) and Mazza (D-Grand Isle), and last but not least, Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham).
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).