Group defends Vermont public schools

Geo Honigford, of Royalton, Vt., speaks at the White River Valley Supervisory Union's annual meeting in Bethel, Vt., on March 4, 2024. (White River Valley Herald - Tim Calabro)

Geo Honigford, of Royalton, Vt., speaks at the White River Valley Supervisory Union's annual meeting in Bethel, Vt., on March 4, 2024. (White River Valley Herald - Tim Calabro) White River Valley Herald photographs — Tim Calabro

Greg Hughes, of Bethel, Vt., speaks at the White River Valley Supervisory Union's annual meeting in Bethel, Vt., on March 4, 2024. (White River Valley Herald - Tim Calabro)

Greg Hughes, of Bethel, Vt., speaks at the White River Valley Supervisory Union's annual meeting in Bethel, Vt., on March 4, 2024. (White River Valley Herald - Tim Calabro) —

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 7:01 PM

Modified: 06-18-2024 1:34 PM


A couple of weeks before Town Meeting Day, longtime Norwich School Board member Neil Odell wrote a letter to future Vermonters about the demise of public education.

“Rather than double down on our public education system,” Odell wrote, “we instead attempted to preserve our private school tuitioning program while claiming we were appalled by discrimination.”

The letter was published by VTDigger and the Valley News and among the people who read it was Greg Hughes, a former longtime member of the Bethel School Board, before Bethel merged with Royalton to found the White River Valley Unified District.

Moved by what he read, Hughes made some notes and at the White River district’s annual meeting in March urged his fellow citizens to ask their elected officials to oppose spending public funds on private schools.

In the audience that evening was Tom “Geo” Honigford, a former longtime member of the Royalton School Board and, like Odell, a former president of the Vermont School Boards Association. Honigford talked to Hughes, and later to Odell and a few other people. Together, they established Friends of Vermont Public Education.

Their timing, it turned out, was pretty good. Around the same time, Republican Gov. Phil Scott announced Zoie Saunders as his choice to lead the state Agency of Education.

“The focus for us was primarily on public dollars going to private and religious schools,” Odell said in an interview. But there was a connection to Saunders, whose experience with public education is far outweighed by her work as a charter school consultant.

The Friends of Vermont Public Education held a news conference in the Statehouse on April 23 to oppose Saunders’ appointment and to take issue with Scott’s record on education. Scott had “taken steps to erode local control and restrict funding of public schools while ... allowing more money to flow to private and religious schools,” Adrienne Raymond, a member of the group’s steering committee who lives in Shrewsbury, Vt., said at the time.

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The Vermont Senate rejected Saunders by a vote of 19-9, but Scott immediately appointed her interim secretary.

Scott’s appointment of Saunders was an indication to the Friends group that the governor is now a more overt supporter of school choice programs than he had been.

Vermont’s public school system is struggling to cope with a range of state initiatives, with a long decline in student populations, and with rising costs, particularly of health care. The Friends see a chance to move the debate, particularly on public funding for private and religious schools.

“The goal of our group is to bring education funding back in line with our (state) Constitution,” Hughes said.

“These issues fly under the radar of regular Vermonters,” Odell said. “I think more people would be upset about it if they knew what was going on.”

What’s going on is a complex reckoning, long in the making, over how Vermont pays to educate its children.

In the short term, Vermont is facing higher education property tax rates. Scott vetoed the annual school funding bill, claiming it didn’t do enough to reduce taxes, then drew the ire of legislative leaders by not attending a negotiating session on Wednesday. Lawmakers will meet Monday to decide whether to override Scott’s veto.

But the arguments over school funding are based on longstanding policies that are exerting new pressures.

To cite an example the Friends organization has taken to heart, the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in Carson v. Makin opened the door for Vermont districts that pay tuition for some or all grades to send public money to religious schools.

Since the 2020-21 school year, the amount of public funding to religious schools has increased by a factor of six and is now more than $1 million a year, according to a March analysis of state data by VTDigger.

Opponents of this practice point out that it violates two clauses in the state Constitution: the Common Benefits and Compelled Support clauses. The former asserts that government is “instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community,” and Hughes noted that “education is the only government service mentioned in our Constitution.” The latter states that “no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience.”

By sending state funding to religious schools “I think we’re definitely violating the compelled support clause,” Hughes said.

Via school districts, the state pays tuition to educate students in districts that lack schools for some or all grades. There are no restrictions on where that money can go, and in past years Vermont tuition payments have gone to schools in distant states and countries, including Europe.

While 95% of Vermont’s publicly funded students attend public schools, paying tuition to private and religious schools is “bleeding public schools,” said Ken Fredette, a former longtime school board member in Wallingford, Vt., who like Honigford and Odell is a former president of the Vermont School Boards Association.

“There are federal court rulings on this issue, and Governor Scott is obligated to follow the law as it is written,” Amanda Wheeler, a spokesperson for Scott, said in an answer to emailed questions. “It’s also important to note, only about 4,000 Vermont students attend independent schools, which is about 5% of our student population. A change on this front would have a negligible impact on the cost pressures our system is facing, and we need to instead focus on changes that will ensure taxpayers can afford education funding and that our students are seeing better educational opportunities and outcomes.”

The Friends of Vermont Public Education is wading into a political issue that doesn’t fall along party lines, Honigford noted.

For example, a bill introduced in the Legislature in 2022 that would have required districts that pay tuition to designate three public schools (or one of the state’s “traditional academies” — Thetford, Lyndon, St. Johnsbury, and Burr and Burton — that act as public schools) died in the Senate Education Committee, which was led by Sen. Brian Campion, a Bennington Democrat and a supporter of tuitioning.

Scott has been in office long enough, since 2017, to have a substantial influence on education without talking much about his vision for the state’s public school system, members of the Friends group said.

“The entire State Board of Education has been appointed by Phil Scott,” Fredette said. The appointment of Saunders was an “unmasking,” he added.

With Scott busy considering legislation, there is no plan to search for a replacement for Saunders, Wheeler said. “From the start, Governor Scott has believed in Interim Secretary Saunders’ skills and ability and continues to believe the Agency of Education is in good hands under her leadership. So, we have not yet begun any next steps regarding this position.”

With the state controlling funding and with the education secretary now appointed by the governor, a change made under Scott’s predecessor, Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, the policy debate has become more politically charged. The Carson v. Makin ruling, new obligations placed on schools by the Legislature and the steep rise in property taxes projected for the coming year have only raised the temperature.

In that atmosphere, the Friends of Vermont Public Education hope to remind voters of the state’s constitutional principles. Where education has always been a function of democracy, “it’s become a commodity, and people are more concerned about what they can get,” Honigford said in an interview.

“They’re our democratic foundation,” he said of public schools.

He also rejects the view that public schools are failing students. In the 1950s, graduation rates were far lower than they are today, and his own daughters, who attended public school in Royalton, were ahead of where he was in knowledge and skills when he graduated high school in the late 1970s.

For the moment, the Friends organization is “taking a breath,” Honigford said, but members expect to be active in the elections this fall, asking candidates about school funding and the state Constitution. Though Scott does not face a challenger of substance, the makeup of the state Senate is changing, and Friends members are heartened by the retirement of Campion, the Senate Education Committee chairman, a staunch supporter of public tuition to private schools.

Vermont’s founders were willing to fight for the principles of what became public education, Hughes said. “I don’t think we should so easily give it away. I think we should refocus our attention on our Constitution.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.