"Despite relatively low use of choice in most districts with interdistrict choice programs, the benefits extend well beyond those students who select schools in other districts. The fact that students and their parents were offered the choice of schools and selected the school in their district of residence is an important statement of support for the schools selected and invests parents in the schools their children attend."
Following passage of Act 71, the Vermont NEA worked quickly to develop a uniform position on school choice. According to articles posted on their web site in March 1998 and June 1999, the union advocated for a plan that would not allow public money to go to private schools, would not involve the transfer of funds between districts, would be voluntary for the schools, and would be restricted regionally. Also, by the time their June 1998 legislative wrap-up was posted on the web, the union had staked out their role in the process. They described the school choice legislation as requiring the State Board to develop, "with necessary involvement by Vermont-NEA… a plan providing so-called [sic] choice to Vermont high school students."
Remarkably, the State Board of Education came up with a plan that featured each and every one of the Vermont NEA recommendations. In the union's words, "The State Board's recommendations mirrored ours."
On January 19, 1999, the State Board recommended an acutely limited school choice plan. As it was eventually written into legislation, the plan proposed that each high school would be required to enter into an agreement with at least one other high school district, and students would be allowed to choose "any" public high school within the public high school choice region of residence. High schools could refuse to allow more than three percent of their students, or 6 students (whichever was less) to participate.
Most remarkable, however, was another part of the proposal that was actually passed by the State Board during their meeting-- to end Vermont's 100+ year old tuitioning system (read a full report here):
Is the Vermont NEA writing our state's school choice policy?
A few weeks after the State Board meeting, "An Act Relating to Repeal of Public School Choice" (H.183) was introduced by a legislator who is a former school superintendent, and others, to repeal the provisions of Act 71 that commit the general assembly to establishing public school choice in 2001. Fortunately, this bill was not taken up.
The same week, on February 6th, the University of Vermont Department of Education sponsored a "School Choice Forum" at the State House in Montpelier with the alleged purpose of exploring the ramifications of school choice options with a "panel of nationally recognized researchers and policy analysts." The organizers did not contact or consult with the state's only school choice organization, Vermonters for Educational Choice, and chose a panel consisting almost entirely of nationally recognized school choice opponents (details here).
The very same day, Vermont NEA reports that "political activists" met in Montpelier "for a day of discussion with state legislative leaders and thinking about issues facing Vermont schools." According to the March 1999 Vermont NEA web site article, "Top on the list of concerns was school choice, the topic that dominated the entire afternoon agenda."
One message was sent to legislative leaders loudly and clearly during opening remarks by organizer Ellen David Friedman; "Vermont-NEA's most important political accomplishment this election year was helping Vermont to avoid the instability and uncertainty which would have resulted had there been a big turnover in the [Democrat-controlled] Legislature."
Thanks, of course, were forthcoming from attendees such as House Speaker Michael Obuchowski (D) and Lieutenant Governor Doug Racine (D). Obuchowski said, "If it wasn't for dedicated teachers who took time out of their lives, I wouldn't be here... That's why I have strong feelings about choice. My personal druthers: I would prefer not to have it happen."
Racine thanked the union activists for the 1,176 vote victory in his statewide race. "I'm here, thanks to you," he said. "I think you as educators, we as a state are doing a good job… We don't need to be looking at vouchers, charter schools, businesses running schools..."
During March and early April these lobbying efforts bore fruit. What was essentially the union's position on school choice made it to the Senate floor. In the words of the Vermont NEA, "The Senate then developed a bill that reflected the State Board's recommendations in the form of S.203. It would set in motion the creation of voluntary regional collaborations to provide some high school students the option of attending an out of district public school. That bill has now passed the Senate and will be considered in the House Education Committee next year."
The only clear departure from the union's original position was the Senate's rejection of the proposal to discontinue the tuitioning town system, though it does appear that S.203 could still have the effect of further limiting private school choice in tuitioning towns to "...one of the five academies which has traditionally provided education to public school students. The five academies are St. Johnsbury Academy, Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans, Burr and Burton Seminary, Lyndon Institute, and Thetford Academy."
So the legislature promised Vermonters school choice. The Vermont-NEA developed a uniform position on how to create what amounts to the illusion of school choice. The State Board developed a proposal that closely mirrored the Vermont-NEA's position. Then the Senate developed a bill that closely reflected the State Board's recommendations.
One has to ask, is the Vermont NEA writing Vermont's school choice policy? If so, is this in the public interest? I think not.