Vermonters for Better Education
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Some political agendas, like dogs gnawing old bones, never go away. One of those old bones is back on the legislative agenda. It is the biennial attempt to stop public tuition dollars from crossing the borders of Vermont into such places as New Hampshire, New York, and the rest of the United States. The State Board of Education last week recommended to the Senate that public tuition dollars emanating from towns with no high school be limited to Vermont schools. The limitation is the hobby horse of a handful of people who think that it is somehow wrong that some parents choose to send their children to schools outside Vermont. That's provincial xenophobia; they seem to think that the folks in other states are gaining some undefined, but certainly unfair advantage by collecting the tuition dollars of hardworking Vermonters. Others of this shortsighted claque are offended that public tuition dollars help defray the costs of pricey independent schools for a few families. That is mean-spirited class warfare, albeit on a minor key.
Stopping public tuition dollars at Vermont's borders would be bad public policy both practically and philosophically. Practically it would create more problems than it would solve. These ideologues probably don't know it (such people seldom check the realities before they start demonstrating), but literally hundreds of students cross our borders every day in both directions to get to the schools they need. In the northwest corner of the State and from the end of Lake Champlain to Massachusetts, Vermont students cross over to New York because they are much closer to those schools (which are substantially cheaper, by the way) than to our schools. Stopping that flow in the name of xenophobia would visit real hardship upon those students and parents. For the same reason, Vermont students the whole length of the Connecticut River cross over to New Hampshire. Surprise! Significant numbers of New Hampshire students cross over into Vermont because our schools are much closer to them. If bleeding Vermont tax dollars into New Hampshire is the issue it isn't an issue. The 75 New Hampshire students at St. Johnsbury Academy, alone, will drop $525,000 New Hampshire tax dollars into our economy this year.
Philosophically, the stop-the-tax-dollars move is repugnant. The idea of choice is as old as public education in Vermont. For better than a century, Vermonters living in towns without high schools have had the right to send their kids wherever they want with a state determined and limited number of tuition-dollars-in-lieu-of-a-high-school following them. To stop these dollars at the border is a major limitation of this long tradition, and it is a transparent limitation. The public education establishment would dearly like to get rid of the whole idea of choice. Stopping the dollars at the border is a way of literally nibbling at the edges of choice without attracting much attention. Further, stopping tuition dollars from benefiting people who send their kids to pricey independent schools is an embarrassing reverse snobbery. Essentially, it says, "I don't have your money, so I won't let your tax dollars support your kids in the same fashion that your tax dollars support my kids." People who earn more still pay taxes; in fact they pay more taxes than people who earn less. Do they abandon their rights because their bottom line is higher than yours or mine? Is not this move discrimination against people who succeed?
Survey after survey after survey shows that the majority of Vermonters want more, not less, choice in where their kids go to school. We don't appreciate their frustration in this corner of Vermont because we have choice and have had it for a very long time. We are complacent about it, and we can't afford to be. The people gnawing at this bone one more time are not complacent. They have an agenda, and their agenda is to take away our choice bit by bit. We must pay attention and not let them get away with it.
Bernier L. Mayo
February 2, 1999