School Choice & Charters

Vermont’s ‘Tuitioning’ Is Nation’s Oldest Brand of Choice

By Kirsten Goldberg — May 18, 1988 9 min read
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More than a hundred years before the term “educational choice’’ became a buzzword for reformers, an experiment began in the small towns of Vermont, born of necessity and fueled by Vermonters’ legendary penchant for thriftiness and independence.

That 19th-century experiment now gives the parents of more than 7,000 secondary-school students the right to choose a school for their child from among a variety of public, private, and quasi-public schools, with tuition paid by the local school board.

Vermont residents call it “tuitioning,’' but it is probably the longest-running and largest voucher, or choice, system in the nation.

It has become so much a way of life in the Green Mountain State that few attempts are made to change it, and those have always failed. Those who support the system say it is a model of educational choice. Its detractors call it an educational relic, and elitist as well.

But surprisingly, Vermont’s tuitioning system barely gets mentioned by those who advocate similar plans elsewhere.

“The rest of the country regards Vermont as unique, and what works in Vermont, in the eyes of the education establishment, is not a very replicable model,’' said Patricia M. Lines, a policy analyst at the U.S. Education Department. “You might as well say it also works in British Columbia.’'

Some small towns in Maine and Connecticut also “tuition’’ students, but on a much smaller scale, education officials in those states said.

Began in Mid-1800’s

Vermont’s choice system began in the mid-1800’s when publicly supported high schools first began to challenge the private academies, said John McClaughry, the author of a federally funded study of choice in Vermont. The scenario was played out in many states, but in Vermont the results were different.

The academies, with their emphasis on classical studies and college preparation, did not appeal to parents who could not afford to pay tuition and wanted free public secondary schools that would equip their children for the practical trades of farming or shopkeeping.

In many cases, the academies went public and were incorporated into newly formed public-school districts.

Some towns, however, were considered too small to support a public high school. An act of the state legislature in 1869 allowed public-school districts that did not have their own high school to pay the tuition of students to local private schools.

The statute was strengthened several times during the late 19th century to allow towns to pay tuition for students at any nonsectarian private or public school, even those outside of the state.

A ‘Meaningful’ Choice

In 1985, 95 of Vermont’s 246 towns “tuitioned’’ 7,633 students, or 24 percent of the state’s high-school-age population, according to Mr. McClaughry’s 1987 study, “Educational Choice in Vermont,’' which was funded by a grant from Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s discretionary fund.

Of the Vermont students “tuitioned’’ in 1985, 4,312 attended public high schools in Vermont, 560 went to public high schools in adjacent states, and 2,761 attended private schools in Vermont, eight other states, and Quebec, Canada, Mr. McClaughry found.

In addition, 29 of the “tuition towns’’ send some or all of their elementary-school students to public schools out of the district. Vermont law does not allow tuitioning of elementary students to private schools, a limitation that caused a controversy in the 1985 legislative session that marked the only recent debate over the choice system.

Mr. McClaughry’s study does not take a position on choice, but the researcher says he is an avid supporter of the system.

“As a parent, you have a meaningful choice among schools with different flavors,’' said Mr. McClaughry, who is president of the Institute for Liberty and Community, a small public-policy research organization in Concord, Vt.

Most advocates of choice say it stimulates competition among schools, ensures “accountability,’' and increases parent involvement. Little is known about how Vermont’s system works in these areas.

‘It Works for Us’

For Joseph S. Kasprzak, superintendent of schools in St. Johnsbury, a town of 8,000, there is no question about the worth of tuitioning.

“It’s worked for us since 1842,’' said Mr. Kasprzak, referring to the year the town began sending its high-school students to the private St. Johnsbury Academy.

The St. Johnsbury school district provides public schooling for about 1,000 students in grades K-8. After the 8th grade, students can attend any public or private school, although about 90 percent of the 400 secondary-school students go to the academy, Mr. Kasprzak said.

Some students, however, choose the public high schools in nearby Concord or Danville, or the private Lyndon Institute in Lyndon Center. Students with a talent for skiing opt for the Burke Mountain Academy, a private “ski academy.’'

The district will pay the full tuition charged by St. Johnsbury, $4,300 this year, or that charged by any public school. For students who want to attend any other private school, the district will provide the average tuition charged by the state’s regional, or “union’’ high schools, which was $3,425 this year. The parent must pick up any difference.

“It is a voucher system, truly,’' Mr. Kasprzak said.

But the system as it works in St. Johnsbury, he said, does not stimulate competition. “It’s a nice option for our parents, in that they do have choices, but not many of them take advantage of it,’' he said.

Part of the reason, he said, is the strength of St. Johnsbury Academy, which has a comprehensive program, including vocational education. About 60 percent of the academy’s enrollment is made up of St. Johnsbury residents, he said.

In some towns, Mr. McClaughry found, about half of the students went “away’’ to school.

For example, in the 1984-85 school year, the town of Londonderry tuitioned 42 of its 88 high-school students to 19 private schools in four states, including the Deerfield Academy, Northfield-Mount Hermon, and Stoneleigh-Burnham in Massachusets; Emma Willard in New York; Loomis Chaffee, Mis Porter’s, and the Taft School in Connecticut.

‘It’s Elitism’

Some Vermonters question whether tuitioning offers substantial choices to most families, or merely helps middle-income families “buy out’’ of the public schools. At worst, they say, the system acts as financial aid for wealthy families who send their children to prestigious boarding schools.

“It’s a relic left over from the days when there weren’t many high schools,’' said state Representative Barbara C. Wood, a Republican from Bethel and vice-chairman of the House education committee.

“Only the fairly well-to-do can get the most from it, and poor people don’t use it,’' Ms. Wood said. “It’s elitism.’'

Because the choice system is available only to those towns without a public school, or those that do not belong to a regional school district, the system is unfair and hurts the public schools, she said.

“The better-educated parents send their kids to private schools, and then we lose those parents’ interest in the public schools,’' Ms. Wood said.

In 1986, she sponsored legislation that would have eliminated parental choice and required the school boards of the tuition towns to contract with regional public high schools. The bill was not acted upon.

“It’s kind of an entrenched system, and people in those communities would fight to the death to maintain it,’' Ms. Wood said. “Most legislators don’t want to stir up that hornet’s nest.’'

Seeking Limits

In recent years, the state education department has tried to limit tuitioning. In 1985, the department decided to end the town of Kirby’s practice of tuitioning 5th and 6th graders to a private middle school--the same school where the town sends its 7th and 8th graders.

Partly because of a protest in Kirby, the state Senate that year passed a bill to allow the elementary tuition towns to make payments to nonsectarian private schools.

But then-Commissioner Stephen S. Kaagan, the state board of education, and the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association rallied opponents of the measure in the House and the bill did not get out of committee.

This year, Ms. Wood said, there has been no discussion in the legislature about tuitioning. “There were bigger issues--school finance,’' she said.

Part of the reason tuitioning remains, Ms. Wood said, is that “a lot of people don’t know it exists.’'

Under Vermont law, private church-affiliated schools cannot receive tuition payments from towns. But the distinction between secular and nonsecular sometimes gets blurred, according to Mr. McClaughry.

“If the parent yells loud enough and threatens a lawsuit, then a school that at first was church-affiliated is suddenly found to be non-church-affiliated,’' he said.

For example, Mr. McClaughry said, his daughter had attended the National Cathedral School for two years when the family lived in Washington. When they returned to Vermont and his daughter decided to stay at the school, the state education department said it would not allow tuition payments to be made to the school, which has Episcopal clergy on its board and holds chapel once a week.

Mr. McClaughry said he threatened to sue and pointed to other independent schools with clergy on their boards that the department had approved. The tuition payment was allowed.

Connecticut, Maine

Spokesmen for the education departments of Connecticut and Maine said systems like Vermont’s exist in some small towns. However, there are few statistics available to determine how widespread the practice of tuitioning is in those states.

In Maine, about 10 private schools are approved to receive tuition payments from towns without their own schools, said Suzan C. Cameron, a consultant for school finance in the state education department.

About 60 percent of the enrollment at those schools is publicly funded, she estimated. The state does not keep track of the number of students that take part in tuitioning, she said.

Like Vermont, Maine sets a limit on the tuition amount, which this year is $2,959 for secondary-school students and $2,130 for elementary-school students. In addition, the state allows private secondary schools to charge towns an additional $221 per student to cover capital costs. As in Vermont, towns can contract with one school to provide education.

Ms. Cameron said the system, “isn’t really choice.’' In some towns, students may be able to choose from two schools, but since many of the tuition towns are in isolated areas, “usually there’s not much around.’'

‘A Hundred Flowers?’

Vermont proponents of choice were unwilling to say the Green Mountain State’s unique system could be transported conveniently to other areas, citing its century-old origins and the state’s small size and rural character.

“You could transfer it, but you have to remember that geography is the major factor here,’' Mr. McClaughry said. “If you rule out boarding school, your choice comes down to how far you are willing to send your kids to school--five miles, 25 miles?’'

Another question, he said, is, “would you get all the benefits that are supposed to flow from educational choice, a lot of different schools, a hundred flowers blooming?’'

For Vermonters like Mr. Kasprzak, such speculations are irrelevant anyway. “It’s not going to change, not here in Vermont,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 1988 edition of Education Week as Vermont’s ‘Tuitioning’ Is Nation’s Oldest Brand of Choice


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