Bill puts geographic limits on Vermont tuition

Published: 3/20/2022 9:06:58 PM
Modified: 3/20/2022 9:06:09 PM

Once they complete the sixth grade, students in the towns of Dover and Wardsboro must leave their school district to attend class.

The small River Valleys school district, in rural Windham County in the Green Mountains, does not operate a high school or a middle school. Under Vermont’s school choice system, graduates of grade schools in Dover and Wardsboro can get public money for tuition at middle and high schools outside the district.

Most students use that tuition money to attend class in neighboring counties or towns.

But some go even farther — in the case of some River Valleys kids, all the way to a private school in Sweden.

Those students were not the only ones to attend an out-of-state private school with public money. For the 2020-21 school year, school districts spent nearly $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars to send roughly 100 students to private schools outside the state — and the country.

Now, a bill in the Vermont Senate would put guardrails around that money, restricting it only to neighboring states and Quebec.

“I think a lot of Vermonters generally feel as though, OK, within our neighboring states, we have these reciprocal relationships, these kinds of things work,” said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the sponsor of the bill. “And (they’re) maybe not quite comfortable with using taxpayer dollars to go to a school in California.”

Through Vermont’s unusual tuition system, towns in school districts that don’t offer public school at all grade levels — sometimes called “sending towns” — can use taxpayer dollars to send students to private schools of their choice, as long as the schools are “approved under the laws of that state or country.”

Districts are required to pay up to a certain fixed amount per year for those students’ tuition.

That sum is calculated as the average tuition of Vermont’s public schools — essentially, the average amount of money a school spends to educate a single student.

For the 2020-21 school year, that upper limit was $16,233 for grades seven through 12 and $14,859 for elementary schools. The limit for the upcoming school year is $17,278 for middle and high schoolers and $16,020 for grade schoolers.

Because of that cap, it generally costs no more public money to send a child to a faraway private school than to send them to a nearby public one. That public money may not pay the entirety of a student’s tuition, so their families must pay out of pocket to send their children to private school.

But sending taxpayer money to private schools, sometimes called “independent schools,” can be a divisive practice, and lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to cut down on it in the past.

This session’s proposed legislation, part of a larger bill dealing with public dollars in independent schools, would bar Vermont students from using public tuition to attend independent schools outside of Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and Quebec.

The bill would make an exception for students with disabilities or special needs attending specialized schools.

“Most people that I’ve worked with feel as though moving in this direction — again, keeping (the money) in the neighborhood, not throughout the United States — makes the most sense,” Campion said.

During the 2020-21 school year, roughly 3,000 Vermont students in sending towns used the money to attend public schools, while about another 2,700 students used it to pay tuition at independent schools, according to the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

That year, Vermont school districts spent roughly $48 million on tuition to independent schools, according to data obtained from the state Agency of Education through a public records request.

Most of the Vermont students who receive public money to attend independent schools stay in the state, with hundreds attending large independent schools such as Burr and Burton Academy, St. Johnsbury Academy, and Thetford Academy.

But during the 2020-21 academic year, roughly 100 students used public tuition money to attend independent schools in 11 states outside of Vermont, as well as Sweden and Quebec, according to the state data.

Most of those students attended schools in New England, and a handful went to Stanstead College, a boarding school less than a mile across the Canadian border.

Some students have traveled farther away. In the 2020-21 school year, three River Valleys students used the money to attend Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket, whose website describes it as “the leading boarding school in Sweden” and counts the country’s current king and a former prime minister as alumni.

Bill Anton, superintendent of the Windham Central Supervisory Union, which includes River Valleys, confirmed the tuition payments to Sigtunaskolan. He declined to speak about the specific students, but he believes a similar number of kids are attending school abroad this year.

“It is not very common to go out of the country, but when it happens, it is usually some sort of family connection,” Anton said in an email. “A relative lives in another country, so the student wants to experience something new and exciting.”

Other Vermont students attended the Wy’East Mountain Academy, an Oregon boarding school with a focus on competitive winter sports; the Culver Academies, an Indiana military boarding school; and the Fountain Valley School of Colorado, whose website boasts of a 100% college matriculation rate, “1,100 acres of natural beauty,” and 70 horses.

The bill putting geographic limits on tuition has gotten the green light from the Senate Committee on Education and the Senate Appropriations Committee and is headed to the Senate floor.

Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, said his organization generally supports most of the larger bill, but opposes the provision limiting tuition money to neighboring states.

“We always stand for school choice,” Moore said. “And so any restrictions that are put on choice is something that we prefer not to see.”

But the group has so far “decided not to make a fight over it,” he said.

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