As headmaster of The Mountain School at Winhall, I must respond to recent columns in the Reformer.
First and foremost, the deficit of the Winhall School District was caused by a perfect storm on two key fronts. First, the Winhall School District underestimated (and underbudgeted for) the amount of new students moving into the town by an average of 18.75 students per year from FY07-FY11. WSD did not receive funds from the state for many of these students, which caused a double penalty for taxpayers because the district spent above the state allowable tuition. Second, this problem was compounded by a poorly written Vermont education law, which Rep. Oliver Olsen helped correct. This statute allowed districts with public schools to go over the spending limit because of new students moving to town, while districts sending students to an independent school were penalized. This was especially a problem for Winhall, where 86 percent of students in the town attended an independent school. Since then, the law has been changed, the deficit paid off, and Winhall taxpayers saw a considerable reduction in their tax rate this year.
As to the argument that fundraising and location (Stratton Mountain) are a basis for Winhall's "low tuition" claim, in FY10 -- the year prior to the peak of the Winhall deficit issue -- MSW had the lowest K-8 tuition of all tuitions paid by Winhall taxpayers, at $12,600. Other local public schools that year had rates between $13,087 and $13,653.
Fundraising by the Mountain School at Winhall, Inc. and the Manchester Elementary Middle School Friends Foundation, both 501(c)3s, in FY10 was $17,067 and $146,769, respectively, and in FY11 $36,124 and $146,769. In those years, not only did Manchester Elementary Middle School charge more money per child than MSW, but it also raised a considerable amount of money more than MSW to help provide services to the children of their school, which would in essence reduce the tuition and tax rate for Manchester.
And while the Mountain School at Winhall has paid rent for the facilities it has leased since its founding in 1998, MSW "pays all its bills" based on its tuition and fundraising efforts. It is important to note however, that, according to the Department of Education's "Announced Tuition Report" for FY10 and FY11, neither Flood Brook nor Jamaica included capital debt in their announced tuition. Their numbers may very well be artificially low for comparison in favor of the public school. Additionally, public schools can "back bill" towns to make up for a deficit. Independent schools can charge only one rate and receive only one rate, regardless of circumstance.
So all things equal, those public tuition dollars may be much greater by year's end than what was announced at the start of the year, raising the tax rate for those public school taxpayers.
As far as school choice is concerned, I encourage all citizens to investigate independent schools more closely and to not base judgments on feelings, but on facts.
The data tells us school choice increases diversity and equity for students because district lines in this country are based on neighborhoods, and typically the wealthier (and more segregated) communities have the best schools, while the poorer (and often minority) neighborhoods have the worst. School choice gives power to the parents to find a school that is right for their child.
Ten studies have found statistically significant gains in academic achievement from school vouchers. No such study has ever found negative effects, while only one study's findings were inconclusive. In short, school choice increases student achievement.
School choice improves public schools and school choice maintains the importance of "democracy" and "civic values" in students according to recent studies.
In closing, the world has changed; therefore, the world of education needs to change. I have yet to find one public school educator that thinks the current system of public education is the best that it can be. I myself am publicly educated and have spent half of my career in public schools. One simple way of looking at increasing the effectiveness of the education system is understanding the difference between "public" education and "publicly funded" education. Let's use the evidence available to us to help create sound policy that gives our children the best opportunities that they can have. Our future depends on it.
Daren Houck has been headmaster at The Mountain School at Winhall for the last 10 years. He was also a teacher and administrator in the public school system for nine years, and was publicly educated for both his K-12 and graduate school experiences.