Act 46: Poverty drives rift between Upper Valley school districts
WINDSOR >> Four school districts in the Upper Valley are no nearer to a merger than they were a year ago.
In fact, the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union is arguably worse off, teetering on the verge of dissolving decades-long partnerships in this supervisory union, because the merger local districts proposed failed to garner approval from the State Board of Education.
The state board has said it won't allow towns that tuition out students to merge with schools that operate public schools.
Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union towns are struggling to come up with an alternative plan, and poverty is the primary cause of a rift between districts in the union.
A plan to create a regional high school in Windsor has failed to gain traction because parents in wealthier towns don't want to give up school choice and send their students to what is perceived to be a poor town.
Weathersfield, Hartland and West Windsor have low poverty rates and tuition out high school students. In West Windsor, well-heeled parents transport their children to Hanover High School in New Hampshire, or Thetford Academy.
Windsor, on the other hand, is relatively poor by comparison and runs its K-12 own school. Forty-four percent of students in Windsor used the federal free and reduced lunch program (FRL) in 2014-2015.
"That is inequity," said David Baker, superintendent of Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union. "Stop and think for a minute, think back to the 1960s with busing. Imagine if this was a black and white issue. Imagine if the white kids had choice and the blacks didn't. The only reason this kind of bias and discussion has been allowed to go on is because it is homogenous."
Windsor isn't the only place in Vermont or the nation that is seeing growing income disparity in public schools. In 1995, a third of the students in America's public schools were low income. Today, more than half of all students are low income, according to a 2015 study by the Southern Education Foundation. In Vermont, 25 percent of students were eligible for FRL in 2004. The percentage is nearly double that in 2016.
Lamoille South Superintendent Tracy Wrend suspects that choice patterns are based on the socio-economic status of the parent and their ability to provide transportation to the school of choice.
"I don't know that it is intentional, but I think it happens," Wrend said. "In the Winooski Valley we administer a public school choice lottery and the three high schools that have the highest waiting lists are Stowe, Montpelier and U-32. Whether it is direct or indirect, part of the proxy for quality can be socio-economic."
Research backs up Wrend's theory. Students with parents who are educated and have higher incomes are more likely to choose schools that have fewer low-income students and higher performances records. One study of Durham, North Carolina, concluded, "schools with concentrations of disadvantaged students and schools located near choice schools attractive to high achievers are particularly hard hit by cream-skimming."
Dave Baker sees this playing out in his supervisory union, Windsor Southeast. At one point, there was talk of a regional high school in Windsor. But the three choice districts would have to give up the option of sending students to schools outside the supervisory union.
"It would bring in all the kids from Hartland, Weathersfield and West Windsor and still take tuition kids," Baker said.
He expects the school would have about 600 students and could provide a comprehensive program with music, theater and arts. Baker says the Windsor regional high school "would be more affordable tax-wise, more equitable for all the kids [and] improve opportunity."
But it breaks down in study committee discussions because "they keep defining it as 'our kids would go to Windsor," Baker says, and they don't want that.
Windsor High School has an image problem resident Pat Eastman says. At the June meeting, Eastman, a graduate of Windsor whose children also attended the school, tackled the elephant in the room. "What is bothering me is our image," she said.
Twenty years ago when she graduated from Windsor the town was associated with the local prison, and, Eastman said, "we never outlived that reputation." Thirty years later, friends couldn't believe that Eastman would send her children to Windsor over Woodstock, she said.
Eastman said people don't think Windsor is an appropriate place to send their children, and that is why they thwarted the idea of a regional high school. Weathersfield rejected the regional high school because voters didn't want to give up choice.
Wrend says socio-economics are playing a role in Act 46 merger considerations. "There is a huge disconnect between the academic achievement – whether looking at standardized assessments or more subjective evidence based outcomes of student achievement – between students from low-income families and students from middle- and high-income families."
And the socio-economic status of students has a significant impact on overall school performance ratings, Wrend said. "That is one of Vermont's biggest challenges as a state."
Windsor resident Jason Gaddis said at a recent meeting that he thought it was unfair that private schools are getting public dollars. "One of the reasons the three towns around us want choice is to send their kids to private school," Gaddis said. "To me that is inherently unequal, not fair and it is ghettoizing those kids in the local public school."
"I understand why they have reservations about Windsor," he continued. "But, I also firmly believe if we had shared all our resources 20 years ago when this school was built – if we dealt with it then or deal with it now and get everyone to work together we can have a fantastic local school that everyone can help make thrive."
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, who once chaired the Senate Education Committee and voted against Act 46, said lawmakers have considered bills over the years that would require independent schools with more than 80 percent of their funding coming from public dollars to accept all students and provide special education and free meals to any that qualified, but he said they never pass.
"We are competing against ourselves. We maintain a public school system then we undermine it by sending tax dollars to private schools," McCormack told constituents last month.
Act 46 was designed to ensure that children in Vermont have a quality education and the same educational opportunities. But because the choice issue only affects 8 percent of the children in 90 small towns in the state it isn't likely lawmakers will get entangled in it, according to Baker.
"The privileged whites back in the '60s were not going to give up those white schools unless busing was forced on them," Baker said. "We have the same thing in Vermont but it happens to be rural white poverty, but it is the same thing."
Act 46 has brought the disparities to the surface, Baker said.
Baker says he understands why parents prefer tuitioning out students. But in order to make it work for all students, "there would need to be some rule changes."
"You would have to have the ability to transport kids, the ability to cap tuitions we can't just open it up to 8 percent of the people of Vermont and have it stay equitable," Baker said. "It flies in the face of Act 46."
Gov. Maggie Hassan, in neighboring New Hampshire, vetoed a bill that would have allowed districts that don't have schools for all grades to send students to non-religious private schools — a system that has been in place in Vermont for decades.
Hassan said the bill violated the state Constitution by creating discrimination and inequality. "It also would undercut every New Hampshire public school student's constitutional right for the opportunity for an adequate education, with strong accountability from the school. Because it is unconstitutional, undermines our efforts to ensure a strong and robust public education system for all New Hampshire students and interferes with tuition agreements between school districts through the state."
Tiffany Danitz Pache is VTDigger's education reporter. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @tpache.
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