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 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 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.) So, since 1978, taxpayers have paid the full tuition for Kirby’s grade-school children to attend school in adjacent towns (and at least the state union average for high-school pupils). The town continues to pay for two school buses to transport most of its pupils to the schools of their choice, although some must arrange their own transportation.
Among the available schools is Anna McClaughry’s. Three years ago a private grade school in Newark, 18 miles from Kirby, closed its doors when the proprietor decided to take a sabbatical. Some of the suddenly unemployed teachers and the parents of the pupils founded Riverside School, located on the Kirby side of nearby Lyndon. The school offers instruction in grades 5-8, emphasizing literacy, the mastery of traditional subject matter (“social studies” has been banned), French and Latin, environmental appreciation, and computer knowledge. In contrast with most public middle schools, three of its six teachers hold degrees from Yale, Harvard, and the Sorbonne. Five of the “orphan” Kirby pupils are attending Riverside, their full tuition of $1,750 paid by the taxpayers via the Kirby school board. (Parents of the remaining 21 pupils, who come from towns that maintain public grade schools, must pay the tuition themselves.) Headmaster Richard Koehne told REASON that he is very pleased to have the Kirby pupils, noting that the town’s voucher system creates more potential customers for his school. “We especially like having kids come from Kirby on the voucher plan because it broadens our student body mix,” he says. “Otherwise, we would have only children of parents who could afford the tuition on top of the property taxes they pay to support the public schools.”
While Vermonters, unbeknownst to the rest of America, have been carrying on on their voucher-like tradition, a debate about vouchers has been part of a growing movement in the country to change public policy so that more parents will have a meaningful choice about their children’s education. The reason for this movement, as Harvard law professor Charles Fried aptly summarized recently in the New,Republic, is that “many individuals are deeply dissatisfied with the public education system and the network of union and political alliances that make it particularly hard to change.” Parents have traditionally had the option, of course, of sending their children to private schools. This option was threatened in Oregon early in this century when the state legislature passed a law requiring attendance at government-operated schools. Fortunately, that law was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1925. Justice James McReynolds, speaking for a unanimous Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, declared that “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” The Pierce case ended the legal threat to the existence of private schools, but parents who desired private education for their children have still faced the problem of cost. There is no exemption or rebate from the various taxes used to support public education. And thus non public education has been the province either of the affluent, who can afford to pay both bills, or of parents whose church—notably the Roman Catholic and Lutheran—has managed to offer parochial schooling at less than its true cost. The double burden is not insignificant.
The Census Bureau figures that total expenditures for elementary and secondary schools in the 1980-81 school year had to be funded by $444 in taxes per man, woman, and child in the United States. So a couple with two children was paying $1,776 in taxes to support the public school system that year, regardless of whether their children were actually attending government schools. If a family chose to send their children to private schools, they would pay, in addition, around $400 a year for church-amated elementary schools and $1,500 for other private elementary schools; private high schools cost even more. In the late 1940s, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church made a serious push in Congress for government aid to parochial schools, triggering a spirited church-state controversy that ended in the proposal’s defeat. Over the next 20 years, however, a new proposal emerged from three quite different quarters. Called the “tuition voucher,” it provided for government grants directly to parents, who could then use the proceeds to purchase education for their children from the school of their choice, whether public or private. An early and eloquent advocate of tuition vouchers was free-market economist Milton Friedman. In 1962, in his influential Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman stood the time honored argument for public education on its head. Do public schools produce a healthy mix of rich and poor, black and white, etc.? Perhaps in the days of the small town with only one school, but not with the rise of populous urban and suburban areas that are economically and racially stratified. A poor black urban family, Friedman pointed out, could possibly save its money and buy the same fancy car owned by a well-to-do white suburbanite, without also buying a fancy house in the suburb. But it was highly unlikely that the black family could afford to send its children to first-class schools located far away from the lower-income black neighborhood. (And a recent study by the National Institute of Education suggests that, after two decades of efforts at integration, minority parents are in the same position today.)
How could a system widely regarded as incompetent, overcostly, and perhaps unjust be most improved? Some people favor an end to all state involvement in education, but that is “outside the range of political feasibility today,” Friedman wrote in a 1973 New York Times Magazine article. In an essay published in 1955,however, Friedman first wrote of vouchers, saying that they would “give competition and free enterprise greater scope” and “pave the way for the gradual replacement of public schools by private schools.” For most of America this was a startling new idea, but Friedman’s proposal was close to the system already in place in some Vermont districts. He would have local school boards provide parents of every school-age child a voucher for an amount equal to the average cost of educating a child in the local government schools. The parents would “be free to spend the voucher and any additional sum they themselves provided on purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their choice,” Friedman explained a few years later in Capitalism and Freedom. “The role of government would then be limited to insuring that the schools met certain minimum standards, such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs.” Friedman emphasizes that parents should be able to use their vouchers in both private and government schools, .whether in the school district or not, if the schools are willing to accept the children. This, he argues, would give parents real freedom of choice, encourage healthy competition among schools, and inject a market standard for teachers’ salaries.
Nothing came of Friedman’s proposal at the time, but others began to think along the same lines. Christopher Jencks, a liberal professor of education at Harvard University (now at Northwestern University). advocated a voucher system as early as 1966. In 1970 he argued that vouchers could ameliorate the plight of black children in underfunded and ineffective ghetto schools. Since despite a.decade of civil rights agitation and progress, it did not appear that black schools in white-dominated cities would ever be brought up to the level of the better white schools, Jencks favored vouchers to allow blacks to attend the white schools instead of the schools nearest their homes. Meanwhile, a few Catholic educators were warming up to the voucher idea. Unlike the earlier proposal to divert tax monies directly to parochial schools, the voucher plan ostensibly subsidized parents, just as the post—World War II GI Bill had subsidized students. It would then be immaterial whether the parents cashed their vouchers with parochial schools or nonsectarian private schools or public schools. Inasmuch as the earlier GI Bill had stimulated a wave of trade schools created expressly to relieve veterans of their GI Bill dollars, this contention was somewhat transparent; but the movement still grew.