A year ago Senate Education chair Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) introduced a bill (S.91) to impose heavy state regulation on any independent schools receiving public tuition payments. The motivation of course came from the public school establishment, including notably the now-departed Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca.
Always alarmed at any threat of competition, the public school establishment was terrified by North Bennington. In that village the school board increasingly worried that pressure for consolidation, emanating from Montpelier, would force the closure of their beloved village K-8 school.
Over three years the school board and voters preemptively closed their public school. In its place, they issued vouchers to their children to attend whichever public or non-sectarian independent school their parents found most suitable. From the education establishment's standpoint, this expansion of parental choice was seriously aggravated by the fact that the school board itself engineered the creation of a new independent school, leased to it the former Village School building, and supplied the principal from the former public school.
The legislature temporarily shelved McCormack's bill, and instead mandated a study 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 public tuition dollars.
Five of the 12 committee members came from the independent school sector. The other seven came from the establishment, including the designated chair, Armando Vilaseca.
The committee met three times over last fall. At the final meeting representatives from North Bennington and Winhall, where the same conversion had occurred in 1998, explained in detail why the voters of their communities made their decisions to close a public school and lease space to a new independent school. Chairman Vilaseca did not attend.
The Secretary had apparently decided that there was no need to reach any sort of consensus or even take votes. Instead, he went off and wrote his own report to the legislature. Committee members saw it only after it was released to the public. State Board of Education Chairman Stephan Morse, a former Speaker of the House, was quoted as saying that in all his legislative experience, he had never seen anything like this.
Vilaseca took the opportunity to go well beyond the committee's charge. His task, as he saw it, was not only to make sure that North Bennington never happens again, but also to suck Vermont's independent schools far into the suffocating grasp of his Agency of Education.
His first recommendation is commendably clear: Forbid [by legislation] privatization of a public school, by which he means closing a public school and simultaneously facilitating creation of a local independent school to receive student tuition payments.
The rest of Vilaseca's report lists all the requirements he wants to impose on independent schools, such as securing approval to provide special education for all 13 disability categories (whether or not they are needed), offering free and reduced school lunches, and meeting all federal guidelines applicable to public schools, including Adequate Yearly Progress mandated by the Federal NCLB act.
To anyone but a veteran public school bureaucrat, the startling thing about Vilaseca's report is his evident disbelief that any intelligent and concerned parent would even think about sending a child to an independent school which does not offer state-certified teachers, subsidized lunches, and compliance with mandates such as the Coordinated Interagency Services Plan for Children and Adolescents with Severe Emotional Disturbances (CISPCASED).
Government-funded educators understandably believe that their product is, for all children, superior to any alternative. They believe that all the state mandates, regulations and practices governing their public schools are needed to assure a "quality learning experience."
Many parents - possibly most parents - believe otherwise. Thousands of them are willing to dig into their own pockets to give their kids what they see as more suitable educational opportunities.
The Vilaseca response is yet another desperate act to protect a government near-monopoly. So is his hijacking of the committee's report to push for sweeping new regulations designed to drag down the competition.
Gov. Shumlin's parents had the means to send him to an independent high school in Massachusetts. The governor himself served on the board of the independent Putney Grammar School. If he is confronted with a bill embodying Vilaseca's recommendations, let's hope that he acts to preserve and enlarge that same opportunity for more of today's youngsters, to make the most of their talents in a school, public or independent, that best meets their needs and dreams.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.