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Jim Kenyon: Strafford’s Schools Are a Matter of Choice

Published: 9/11/2016 12:09:49 AM
Modified: 9/12/2016 11:18:10 AM

School choice is nothing new in Vermont. Many towns without their own high school have long given students the freedom to pick.

In making the decision, teens and parents often consider a high school’s academic reputation, extracurricular opportunities and proximity. Or where students’ friends are going.

Generally speaking, cost isn’t a factor.

Unless you live in Strafford.

The town has gotten away offering a unique brand of school choice that provides a financial boon to families of means while working to the disadvantage of lower-income students.

Let me explain:

Decades ago, Strafford made Thetford Academy its “designated” high school. It guarantees that Thetford Academy will accept all Strafford students, including those with special education needs, and makes the town responsible for their total tuition, which comes to $17,998 per student this year.

The downside: Students’ choices are pretty much limited to Thetford Academy or another school that charges the same or less.

That leaves most Strafford students deciding between Thetford Academy and Sharon Academy, a private school where tuition is $14,773 this year.

Attractive options, for sure.

But apparently not enough to satisfy some Strafford families. This year, 15 Strafford students are enrolled at Hanover High. Last year, it was 13.

Tuition at Hanover is currently $19,275 per student.

But Strafford families opting for Hanover High pay $1,277. Taxpayers pick up the remaining $17,998 — the amount it costs Strafford to send a student to Thetford Academy.

How can that be?

In 2012, the Vermont Legislature passed what’s known as the “Strafford Amendment.” It gave Strafford an exception to a law passed in the late 2000s that placed stricter limits on how much towns with a designated high school could pay in tuition to other schools, such as Hanover High.

State Rep. Sarah Buxton, a Tunbridge Democrat, crafted the legislation after being approached by Paul Perkins, an attorney who was on the Strafford School Board at the time. Buxton’s district doesn’t include Strafford, but she serves on the House Education Committee.

Last week, Perkins gave me an email he sent to Buxton in 2012 that outlined Strafford’s problem. Until the change in law a few years earlier, the town could give Hanover High the same amount per student that it sent to Thetford Academy. But afterward it could only pay up to a statewide tuition average for union high schools, which was considerably less than Thetford Academy.

As a result, Perkins wrote in his email to Buxton, the handful of Strafford families with students at Hanover High stood to go from paying about $200 to $6,000 a year.

Buxton’s bill allowed Strafford, and only Strafford, to pay above the statewide tuition average. Once again, the Strafford School Board was free to provide its students attending Hanover High the same amount it gave to students at Thetford Academy.

Last week, I exchanged emails with board Chairman Erik Goodling who explained how it works. “If a parent is unsatisfied with (Thetford Academy) for three very specific reasons, they can request a waiver to send their child to another public or approved independent school,” he wrote.

I’d argue the bar for obtaining a waiver is fairly low. The board can grant a waiver simply if a “parent is dissatisfied with the instruction provided” at Thetford Academy.

That covers a lot.

I’ve heard that getting a waiver is all but automatic. I asked Goodling for the number of families that have applied for waivers and how many of those were denied. I didn’t hear back.

I sensed from talking with Buxton, a Vermont Law School graduate, that she’s having second thoughts about the legislation.

“In my mind, it perpetuates inequity,” she said.

In effect, Strafford has implemented a two-tiered system of school choice that’s based on a family’s ability to pay.

And no one seems to be complaining. But why should they?

By not footing the entire bill of its Hanover High students this year, Strafford saves $19,155. That’s not a lot in a town spending $3.3 million this year on education, but every little bit helps mollify the budget hawks.

Meanwhile, families who prefer Hanover High get taxpayers to subsidize most of their children’s secondary education.

The losers in the deal?

Families with kids who might want to attend Hanover but can’t afford to dole out $5,000 or so over the course of four years.

Strafford is rather cleverly managing to have it both ways. It enjoys the financial savings that come with having a “designated” high school while offering greater school choice to families with the ability to pay for it.

Fortunately, not many towns embrace the Strafford model.

Consider Sharon. In 2014, the town’s median income was roughly $6,000 less than Strafford’s, according to data from the Vermont Tax Department. Still, Sharon pays the full tuition freight of its three students attending Hanover High this year.

In 1997, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled the state’s education funding system was unconstitutional. The Brigham decision forced the overhaul of how public schools were funded in an attempt to give all schoolchildren equal access to education funding.

Last week, I called Robert Gensburg, the lead attorney in the Brigham case, to get his take on what Strafford is doing. Does it violate the Supreme Court ruling from nearly 20 years ago?

Gensburg, who practices in St. Johnsbury, Vt., thought about it for a minute.

“Brigham wasn’t perfect,” he said. “My gut reaction is that (Strafford’s) kind of plan would not be contrary to the Brigham decision.”

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it right.

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