Who Says Vouchers Wouldn't Work?

Tracy and Jesse Torregrossa are the children of a pharmacist in Dorset, Vermont, located in the southeastern part of the state. This fall, Tracy started her senior year at Proctor School in New Hampshire, and Jesse began his third year of high school at Hebron Academy in Maine. Meanwhile, in the northeast corner of Vermont, Anna McClaughry is reading Shakespeare in the fifth grade at Riverside School, located in an old farmhouse near Lyndonville.

Proctor School, Hebron Academy, and Riverside School are all private institutions. There's nothing unusual about that. What is unusual about the education of these three children is that their families live in Vermont school districts that in effect offer tuition vouchers to some or all of their pupils. The Dorset School District pays about a third of the private-school costs for the Torregrossas, and the town school district of Kirby pays the entire $1,750 annual tuition for Anna McClaughry's schooling.

This is extremely unusual in the United States, and it's more than a little ironic. Washington bureaucrats, Chicago free-market economists, Harvard sociologists, and teachers-union officials from New York to California have argued for years over the idea of education vouchers, even seeing a much-ballyhooed but ill-fated "voucher experiment" come and go in the 1970s. Meanwhile, students in almost 100 Vermont towns have quietly received education vouchers from their local school districts, just as their parents and grandparents did before them.

Now Vermonters have never used the word voucher to describe what happens there, and some state officials were kind of skittish about a reporter coming around and asking questions. Nevertheless, long before the rest of the country had ever heard of the idea, many Vermonters were benefiting from a system whereby the local government uses tax monies to pay for education rather than to provide it.

Early Vermonters, like all New Englanders, placed great value on the education of their children. Vermont's 1777 constitution-the oldest state constitution still in force-provided that "a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town unless the General Assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth." Citizens then undertook to found private academies to educate their sons and daughters. People's Academy in Morrisville, Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, and Burr and Burton Seminary in Manchester are typical survivors from this early era.

As the idea of universal taxpayer-supported education took hold in the first part of the 19th century, the future of these local academies was questioned. Should the local school district finance a new public high school, thus dooming the local private academy? Or should the district simply pay tuition to the private academy, which would serve the purposes of a local public high school?

Since the prominent civic leaders of most Vermont communities had themselves graduated from local private academies, they usually exerted their influence against putting the school out of business by creating a new public high school. Taxpayers also were generally averse to the idea, since it was obviously cheaper for the school district to pay tuition for their children than to assume the capital costs of creating a whole new school. And so it became a tradition in many Vermont towns simply to have the taxpayers pay for the town's children to attend the local private academy. Where there was no private academy, the local school district created and supported a public high school or joined with nearby towns to create union districts. In a few cases, like Townshend's old Leland and Gray Academy, the private school was converted into a public high school.

Vermont's experience was not unique. Headmaster James Steenstra of the Gilbert School in Connecticut says that, beginning in the early 1800s, local governments throughout New England financed the education of school children at private academies. Today, vestiges of the system remain in three towns in rural Connecticut (Norwich, Winsted, and Woodstock) and at least three towns in Maine (Lee, Blue Hill, and Dover-Foxcroft).

Today 95 of Vermont's 246 towns have no public high school and do not belong to any of the state's 27 union high school districts. State law authorizes the school boards of these towns to designate a high school and to pay the full tuition for any local student to attend it. If a school district does not designate a high school, it must pay on behalf of any town pupil, to any approved high school in or out of the state, a tuition amount equal to the average Vermont union high school tuition ($2,675.67 in the 1983-84 school year). If tuition at the chosen high school exceeds that amount, the school district may choose to pay the full amount, but because of taxpayer pressure this is rarely done. The parents must chip in the difference.

Even if the local school district designates the local private academy as the town's high school, it may still be possible for parents to enroll their children elsewhere with voucher support. The town of Lyndon has a strict policy. It has designated Lyndon Institute as its high school and stoutly resists parents' request to send their children elsewhere. The reason cannot be economic, for the Lyndon Institute tuition is slightly above the state union average. The school board seems to believe that all local students simply should attend the local high school. On occasion, presented with a very strong argument, it has relented, but more commonly it will deny appeals. The state Board of Education has upheld the denials.

St. Johnsbury, nine miles from Lyndon, has the opposite policy. Rather than designating St. Johnsbury Academy as the official high school, the authorities allow parents to choose any approved school. But of the 419 high-school-age students in the district last year, 401 did attend St. Johnsbury Academy. Seventeen chose other nearby schools; only one student attended private school away from the area (in Connecticut). Since St. Johnsbury Academy's tuition is $465 above the state union average and the district chooses to pay the entire tuition, one would think that taxpayer pressure would encourage parents to select alternative schools-but this does not seem to be the case. St. Johnsbury Academy, with an excellent scholastic and athletic reputation, has long been the preferred choice of local parents. It also has a boarding department for approximately 40 additional students from elsewhere.

The Manchester-Dorset area, where the Torregrossas live, has a relatively high-income, well-educated population, famous for expensive summer homes and country clubs. According to state records, the two towns together had 344 high school pupils last year. Of these, 299 attended Burr and Burton Seminary, a nonsectarian private academy located in Manchester. Three attended public high schools in Vermont or nearby New York. Seventeen chose private schools elsewhere in Vermont. The remaining 15 attended out-of-state private schools from Phillips Exeter to Lawrenceville to Miss Porter's School. One of them ranged as far afield as Ketchum School in Idaho. To each school the Manchester or Dorset school district supplied a check for $2,480.20, the state-designated average for 1982-83. This covered 25-35 percent of the tuition, room, and board costs for such high-class private academies. Parents, of course, made up the difference.

Barre Town, a blue-collar rural area surrounding industrial Barre City and Vermont's famous granite quarries, presents an entirely different picture. Of the 594 high school pupils in Barre Town last year, 521 attended public high school in Barre City. Another 72 went to public high schools in nearby towns, presumably for geographical reasons. Only one went to a private secondary school in a nearby town.

There is an important limitation on the voucher system. Payments can be made only to nonsectarian private schools approved by Vermont's Department of Education. This at once leaves out the state's three Catholic high schools and one fundamentalist Christian school. The department maintains a list of approved schools, which includes most of the established private academies in New York and New England. When parents propose to send a child to a school not on the list, the department will investigate. For well-established schools, a call to the department of education in the other state may suffice. In some cases the Vermont department will dispatch a field investigator. According to department officials, in one recent case the school was not approved, and the parents, informed of the reasons, chose another private school. Ordinarily, there is some presumption that parents who can ante up $5,000 above the value of a voucher should have some idea of what they are buying.

My own town of Kirby, population 285, is one of about 25 Vermont towns that has a voucher system for all grades, not just for high school. Kirby, which reached its peak population of about 500 in the late 19th century, once had six separate school districts. In living memory there have been five operating one-room schools in the town. In 1978 the townspeople voted to close its last school, which had only 11 pupils in grades one through six. (Although there are enough children in the town to support a one-room school, their geographical distribution means that there is no convenient place to locate such a school.)

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