A couple of weeks ago, representatives from two of Vermont's leading "think tanks" -- The Ethan Allen Institute and the Public Assets Institute-- converged on Manchester for a debate on the proper role of state government in education. Specifically, the four principle participants wrestled with whether public funds should be used to operate public community public schools or pay tuition for their children to attend a public or private school.

Vermont has a long-standing tradition of allowing towns which don't operate their own public schools to tuition their school-age students to outlying communities and schools. Known as "school choice," the system has been a useful way to save towns money and provide parents with options when it came to placing their children in what seemed the most appropriate setting. There are limits to the state's generosity; Vermont's taxpayers won't pay the full boat tab at pricey prep schools, for example. But the state and its taxpayers will cover, up to the state average for primary or secondary school tuition at least, money for neighboring schools where students can enroll, if their own town doesn't operate its own school.

While it's interesting to speculate on what might happen if truly full-blown school choice was available across Vermont, there's a more immediate question at hand. A legislative proposal being considered in Montpelier -- currently known as S. 91-- contemplates whether independent schools that accept up to one-third of their revenues from public sources should also then have to follow state guidelines in certain areas, such as special education, teacher licensing, educational assessments, free meals and other conditions.


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At first blush, that doesn't seem unreasonable (although how the one-third amount was reached is intriguing). Public money for all kinds of things usually comes with some strings attached. The question in this case is whether such restrictions would undermine the special quality that make independent schools attractive -- a freedom and flexibility to tailor educational packages and experiences around the needs of individual students, to hire the best qualified teachers they can find, regardless of whether they have been licensed by the Agency of Education and chart their own course in the other areas. And do so at a reasonable cost.

Many independent schools spring up because enough parents feel the local public school option isn't likely to meet the needs of their children. Let's hope that freedom never goes away. And it's interesting to contemplate what public schools would be like if they had more freedom to experiment in areas like special education and licensing - would they make their school environments more dynamic and exciting, or would too many kids fall between the cracks that the rules that public schools operate under were established to prevent?

The basic endpoint to the issue posed by S. 91 is that there is a need for both a public and independent school option, and together, both serve to educate different students well. And going strictly by the numbers, Vermont's students do perform relatively well on standardized, national tests such as the NAEP (National Association of Education Progress) exams. Taken together, this mix spurs competition to attract as many students as possible, or keep them from leaving, no mean feat when the pool of available students is shrinking, as it is in Vermont.

What some public school educators and administrators may feel uneasy about is if more communities opted to convert their local public schools into independent ones, as happened in North Bennington last year. There's not much evidence of that surfacing yet, although it's interesting that the two major examples, North Bennington last year and Winhall in the late 1990s are down in this neck of the woods. If such a trend were to emerge, they would really need to look closely at why that is. There needs to be a factor of extreme dissatisfaction for that to flourish.

The more immediate question though, takes us back to the legitimacy of the 'strings attached" that come with public money. That would seem to be valid only if a school were seen to be severely lacking in some area of student achievement. If an independent school's test scores are in the bottom 10 percent, or the quality of the student experience is abysmal based on some accepted yardstick or another, then the state may well be justified in asking what kind of return are we getting for the public's money. But long before that happens, most parents will have probably pulled their kids out anyway, and the message sent. 

Public schools are hamstrung by their mandate to educate all that apply for admission. They don't get to pick and choose. It would be nice to see them granted more flexibility in how they educate and if needed, expel students who are disruptive. But the public schools serve a vital purpose to society as a whole. They play a critical role in socializing people and training them for being productive citizens and workers. How to take the best of both systems and apply them may be the core of the matter. On balance, the idea of strings attached to public money at independent schools is likely to create more trouble than it solves, so we'll hope S. 91 goes to gather dust on some legislative shelf.

But with such public money should come some transparency as well. Taxpayers deserve some accounting on how their money is being spent. All in all, a good discussion to have. Choices are good, school choice is essential, but there is no free lunch here either.