Rep. Pajala: School choice flourishes in rural Vermont communities

By Rep. Kelly Pajala

It has been a tough year for the rural community I represent in southern Vermont. Flooding struck not once, but twice. July ravaged our towns, damaged small businesses, and forced people from their homes (including my own).

Now that the legislature is back in Montpelier, I hope my colleagues can work together to solve the many significant issues facing our state – like flood recovery, climate resiliency, workforce growth and infrastructure needs.

Unfortunately, it seems that some legislators would prefer to spend their time trying to tear down the unique educational system that has provided amazing educational opportunities for students in many rural communities, including my own.

So while I would rather be using this space to talk about previously  mentioned priorities, I feel compelled to respond to a commentary published by a few of my colleagues before the beginning of the legislative session, which claimed that my community (and other similarly situated rural communities) are operating an “uncontrolled” and “poorly regulated” school choice system that negatively impacts the state’s finances.

Now that bills are being introduced, we are also able to see some of the specific changes to state law being proposed by opponents of school choice. The most egregious bill is H.820, which would severely limit school choice and limit access to schools that function exactly like public schools.

Three of the towns I represent — Londonderry, Weston, and Winhall — have never operated a public high school, so families in these towns have school choice for grades 9 through 12 and Winhall also
has choice for grades K through 8.

Because we have no public school, nearly all of our students (including my two sons) attend one of the amazing independent schools in our region — Burr & Burton Academy, Long Trail School and Stratton Mountain School. Each of these schools has a different focus and provides unique opportunities that ensure that all of our students have an educational experience comparable to what might be offered in a larger community.

Is our system “poorly regulated?” As a parent, I happen to think that my choice of where I send my children makes this one of the most highly regulated systems in Vermont! If one of the local independent schools isn’t working for one or both of my children, we have other options — and the ability to exercise that choice. And ultimately, if none of our independent schools are meeting the needs of our students, the community can vote to build our own public school and end school choice.

Is our system “uncontrolled” and contributing to the state’s fiscal woes, as charged by opponents of our local education system? Well, if education spending is a measure, the answer is clearly no. For the current fiscal year, per pupil education spending is $20,859 in my local school district (which has no public high school) – quite a bit less than the $22,958 spent in Norwich (which is a part of an interstate school district with Hanover, N.H.).

With Vermont facing $6 BILLION for capital construction needs in our public school system, shouldn’t we be addressing that challenge as a priority? The independent schools in our region were constructed and have been expanded over the years without the benefit of any state capital construction aid. So, not only have these schools been providing incredible opportunities to our local students, they are doing so without adding to the significant fiscal challenges facing our public school infrastructure.

So, with all of the challenges facing our state, why have opponents of the current K-12 education system made our community a target? The short answer is that their attacks are part of an effort to eliminate school choice and access to all approved independent schools in Vermont. They will try to couch it in different ways, but make no mistake – that is the end goal.

H.820 is a clear example of that goal.

  • It forces the “designation” process for districts not operating their own school, eliminating choice as we know it.
  • It ties the ability to receive public education funding to that forced designation process.
  • It caps tuition levels that will be paid with public funding which could lead to families having to pay tuition out-of-pocket even to the designated schools for their district.
  • It forces independent schools to operate exactly like public schools, essentially making it impossible for schools like the Compass School, which serves a very specific need without being a therapeutic school, unable to accept public education funds.

It says a lot that the community I live in continues to support our approved independent schools both by voting to approve a tuition amount to educate students annually and by sending the majority of our students to our local approved independent schools.

My community has also supported the calls for anti-discrimination policies to be put in place as a part of the independent school approval process. What I do not hear coming from my community is a call to force our independent schools to, essentially, become public schools or to limit a student’s ability to choose which school serves them best.

State Rep. Kelly Pajala represents the Windham-Windsor-Bennington. She lives in Londonderry.

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