MONTPELIER — Lawmakers and members of the public are calling for greater guarantees to preserve school choice.
On Thursday, the House School Choice Caucus called for a clarification of Act 46 — the 2015 school district merger law — as it relates to towns that offer school choice.
“In the long run, we’re seeing Act 46 create a lot of confusion and we’re here today to give a voice to that confusion,” said Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Irasburg.
Unlike many caucuses, the House School Choice Caucus does not reflect a partisan divide based on political affiliation, but based on the size of the community, with nearly all of the caucus members hailing from small towns.
“There’s a real need for leadership in directing our choice towns to keep this tradition and this very important issue with schools,” said Rep. Linda Martin, D-Wolcott.
At the heart of the issue is a decision made last fall by the State Board of Education — the body that approves the merger plans created by local communities — that a newly merged school district cannot contain towns that both offer tuition and operate a school for the grades for which tuition is being offered.
The board cited state law that was on the books long before Act 46; the law prohibits school districts in which some students have school choice while other students within the same district do not. The board ruled a newly formed district must follow this same rule.
Dave Kelley, a member of the Hazen Union School Board and the Executive Committee of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, noted that, for years, his supervisory union has contained towns that both offer school choice and operate a school.
Kelley argued if it is OK for a supervisory union, it should be OK for a school district.
“The State Board of Education is treading on a lot of people’s dreams,” Kelley said. “Instead of less school choice, we need more school choice.”
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said that when lawmakers debated the legislation that became Act 46, “assurances were made to legislators that school choice towns will be able to merge with operating districts and maintain their school choice.”
“As a result, legislators that supported the bill and their constituents feel betrayed today, as do I,” Tuner said. “Act 46 is being implemented today in a way that is inconsistent with the intent of the law.”
Turner called on the House Education Committee to “fix Act 46 immediately” to allow a newly merged district to both operate a school and offer school choice.
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairman of the House Education Committee, said it would not be proper to make changes to Act 46 until the law has had a chance to play out.
“To make changes now in the statutes, prematurely, is not the appropriate thing to do,” Sharpe said. “We need to let Act 46 work itself out.”
Sharpe argued the issue is not with Act 46, but with pre-existing statute that precludes tuitioning and operating within the same district.
“We did not change that law with Act 46. That is pre-exisiting law that has been around for quite some time before Act 46,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe also took issue with Turner’s assertion that lawmakers had received assurances Act 46 would allow a newly formed district to both tuition and operate.
“No such assurance was ever made. In fact, there was a recognition in the way we designed Act 46 and left local control in place that these discussions would be difficult and that any change in choice or operating districts would be made by the electorate of the community and not by the state,” Sharpe said.
In an Op-ed issued Thursday, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe argued the decision to give up school choice rests not with the State Board of Education, but with the voters.
“Only the school district, by a vote of the electorate, can decide whether to educate its children by operating a school or paying tuition. This is true under Act 46, as it was before Act 46,” Holcombe wrote.
Holcombe noted that, in 2015, residents in four school districts voted to give up school choice as part of the merger process.
“In these communities, voters came to this conclusion after counting where their ‘choice’ students went to school, and realizing that for the most part, they attended the neighboring public school,” Holcombe wrote. “By voting to partner with their neighbors, these communities now have a voice in school governance and budget.”