Act 56 states, "There is created a committee to research and consider both the opportunities and challenges created by closing a public school with the intention or result of reopening it as an approved independent school that serves essentially the same population of students and receives publicly funded tuition dollars."
The Mountain School at Winhall (MSW) is the first place to look for answers to those questions. MSW is a public school that "went independent" 15 years ago (1998) and served as the model for North Bennington's new independent Village School opening next fall. Both schools are established upon Vermont's Town Academy model, just like the long standing institutions of Burr & Burton, St. Johnsbury Academy, Thetford Academy, and the Lyndon Institute, in which public tax dollars flow to independent schools through community approval and parental choice.
So far, Winhall and North Bennington are the only modern-day communities to take this step of "going independent," and MSW is the only one with a track record we can evaluate.
The timing of Winhall's decision to go independent, essentially taking a very local, free-market-based approach to education reform, interestingly coincides perfectly with Vermont's state-driven, centralized education reform, Act 60, which became law in 1997. So, how have these parallel experiments fared where the rubber meets the road - controlling costs, attracting students, and, most importantly, educating kids? According to Daren Houck, the current headmaster at MSW, the public Winhall Elementary School had the highest per-pupil spending of any K-12 school in the state in 1997 at $12,600 (the state average at the time was just under $7,000).
Academically, it was one of the worst performing, with low test scores "in the bottom five or ten percent," disciplinary problems, and, naturally, disgruntled parents.
For the 2012-2013 school year, tuition at MSW, which replaced Winhall Elementary, was $13,160 - significantly less than the current Vermont statewide average of $16,000 per student. To put these numbers in perspective, since the legislature passed Act 60, independent MSW's tuition's have increased by 4.4 percent, well below the rate of inflation, while the traditional public school cost has increased by 138 percent.
Test scores? Today in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), MSW 8th graders score 13 points above the state reading average, 16 points above the state math average, and 19 points above the state writing average.
Statewide test scores in the public schools since passage of Act 60 have essentially remained flat, despite the explosion in costs.
Another Vermont trend MSW is bucking is falling student populations. MSW opened in 1998 with just 36 students. Today it attracts over 80 students from nine towns, and two countries through an international student exchange program. Statewide, since the passage of Act 60, the K-12 student population in Vermont has dropped from 106,000 to roughly 85,000 and is expected continue this downward trend.
No doubt some folks are thinking that the independent MSW must be cherry picking the top students and abandoning the special needs kids. Nope. MSW guarantees admission to any child from the "sending towns" that vote to pay the tuition, and is approved for all 12 categories of special education by the Vermont Agency of Education.
What's the secret to success? Houck told a meeting of the School Choice Caucus in Montpelier, "[Parents] understand that there is choice. And that understanding to the Mountain School really motivated us to enhance our programs to increase our achievement, to do whatever it would take to draw families - students - from surrounding areas." What's more, Houck recognizes that the competition hasn't just improved outcomes at MSW. "We recognized that we had to be competitive, and families recognized that there were many good options, both public and independent. And, so, over the last nine years that I've been at MSW, I have seen the Dorset school test off the charts, Manchester Middle and Elementary has, traditionally, been a very positive school. Flood Brook is increasing their achievement. Maple Street, which is just down the road is a K-8 independent school; this competition has really improved us."
Vermont desperately needs to find a way to contain education costs while improving outcomes for our children. The model is there. Towns like Winhall and North Bennington have seized upon it. According to Daren Houck, citizens of Addison, Bethel, Burke, Craftsbury, Killington, Manchester, Rochester, Thetford and others are looking into adopting the independent town academy model, too.
Let's hope our legislators learn enough from their study committee to start encouraging these innovations rather than banning them, which, of course, was their first (and very foolish) instinct.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.