News Today – Bongartz & Beck: Independent schools add greatly to public education

by Guwahati_City

News Today | Today Breaking News – By

This commentary is by state Reps. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, and Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury.

We are joining together to express our support for local schools — public and independent — and dispel misinformation that negatively portrays the way our communities deliver education. 

This issue is nonpartisan. Our constituents from the communities we represent are no different from the rest of Vermont; they value local schools, local control, and the education that is provided to all Vermont children. 

Eighty-eight Vermont towns publicly tuition students for some or all grades, and all but five of those tuition students at the high school level. Of the 85,806 students enrolled in Vermont schools, 2,594 attend an approved independent school. Of those 2,594, 1,725 attend one of the traditional town academies located in Lyndon, Manchester, St. Johnsbury and Thetford. 

These town academies largely predate public education, so the public education system grew up around them. Given the rural nature of the surrounding communities, it would have been inefficient, duplicative and expensive to also build public schools. 

Thetford Academy is the oldest, founded in 1819. Burr and Burton Academy has been serving the students of its sending towns since 1829, St. Johnsbury Academy since 1842 and Lyndon Institute since 1867. These schools have never been public schools, but they have served their communities continuously across three centuries.

Local communities continue to desire the educational opportunities and offerings afforded by these institutions. They serve students regardless of socioeconomic background, provide special education services and, in the Northeast Kingdom, technical education as well. These academies attract students from other states and countries, adding diversity to our school communities.

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The four town academies save the Education Fund precious resources. Vermont’s Agency of Education tracks spending by district type. Its latest report indicates that districts operating an elementary school and publicly tuitioning their high school students have budgeted spending (includes special education) of $16,656, versus $20,458 in districts that operate a public school for all grades. Much of this savings to the Education Fund is due to the fact that independent schools fundraise for capital construction.

Arguments that independent schools add cost to the education fund are based on two faulty premises: First, that there are public schools in the areas where independent schools exist with the capacity to serve the same students — there aren’t. And second, that the marginal cost of education decreases in public schools as student counts increase. That is also not the case. Larger districts in Vermont, according to the Agency of Education, have higher pupil-budget spending than small districts.

The independent school landscape also includes many smaller schools that are important to educating Vermont students. Many, including therapeutic independent schools and others, offer specialized services and programs or smaller environments to meet the diverse and publicly unmet needs of Vermont’s children. 

No school — public or independent — can meet the needs of every child. These specialized schools, which receive referrals from every school district, save children who would otherwise not get the services they need.

In many cases, geography affects Vermont’s public and independent school landscape. The “Vermont Only” perspective undermines local control and overlooks key facts such as 12 Vermont counties and 70 Vermont towns share a border with another state or province. And roughly equal education dollars flow into Vermont as go out.

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Some commentators use the term “private schools,” rather than the proper terminology of independent schools, and equate Vermont’s history of paying tuition across three centuries to a “voucher system.” Their intent is to inflame the misinformed notion that our rich history fits into national policy debates around charter schools and voucher models. In fact, independent schools have coexisted with public schools since the public school system evolved around us.

In this case, Vermont is again leading the country with an honest, straightforward and excellent education mosaic that serves our children with love, empathy and care. Our public and independent school models may differ, but both produce quality outcomes. They are all part of our educational success; let’s not undermine one at the expense of the other.

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