Vermont State Board of Education clarifies rules on school choice in district unification

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MONTPELIER, Vermont — The Vermont State Board of Education has clarified rules on school choice for districts seeking to merge under a new state unification law that critics say will eliminate school choice in some districts.

The board ruled Sept. 15 that based on existing law combined districts may either operate a school or pay the tuition for students go to other schools outside the district but can't do both, board Chairman Stephan Morse said.

"This is us looking at the new law and existing statute and making a judgment of how that all comes together," he said after study of the issue with legal counsel.

The new unification law, Act 46, provides tax incentives to districts that consolidate with a goal of saving money and providing equal education to students. Some supervisory unions, made up of several school districts, are opting to take accelerated paths to consolidation that would have to be approved by voters by July 1, 2016.

The board's ruling comes in response to proposals like one from Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, which had been considering consolidating its five rural northwestern districts, including two high schools, into one supervisory union and offering high school choice to all students. Currently, the three districts that don't have high schools have choice, meaning students can pick the school they want to attend regardless of where they live.

Across the state, 93 towns offer school choice with about 8 percent of all students participating.

In light of the state board ruling, Franklin Northeast has a number of options, the cleanest of which if it wants to become a unified district is to tell Bakersfield and Montgomery that they no longer need universal high school choice, said Superintendent Jay Nichols. Parents could petition the school board to tuition out a student to a different school.

Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a free-market think tank that opposes the unification law and supports a statewide expansion of school choice that would allow for public schools and school choice to exist simultaneously, said, "It's not going to limit school choice, it's going to eliminate school choice" in these districts.

The ruling puts to rest a proposal that the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union had been considering to allow its four districts to operate kindergarten-to-eighth grade schools and to offer choice while operating one district high school, Superintendent David Baker said.

If the district wants consolidate, three towns would have to give up school choice, he said.

"After being down here for almost four years, I just don't see them, no matter what the incentive or what the state sanctions are, I don't see them giving it up until someone tells them they have to," Baker said.

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