Gov. Phil Scott’s office denied the claim that the governor supports a statewide school voucher system, which would allow public money to follow students to private schools.
This claim came from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Holcombe, the former education secretary, who announced her candidacy last week. Holcombe abruptly left her position in the Scott administration last spring.
Holcombe told the Herald July 16 that part of why she left her job as education secretary was because Scott supports a statewide school voucher program. She said the program “would take millions from our public schools and funnel it to private schools that on average serve more privileged children.”
Holcombe was referring to a policy memo that the Agency of Education presented to the State Board of Education in March 2019 that proposes consolidating all schools into a statewide district with universal public and private school choice.
Both Scott and Holcombe’s successor at the Agency of Education, Dan French, have both characterized the proposal as a visioning exercise, and not a concrete proposal, in the press.
Scott's spokesperson Rebecca Kelley repeated this assessment of the proposal, and said Scott does not support a statewide voucher program.
“Governor Scott has consistently supported the concept of school choice, which we have now in our public schools, as he believes parents should have a say in their child’s education,” she said. “Supporting school choice — which we have right now — is simply not equivalent to supporting a statewide voucher system.”
Kelley said that while Gov. Scott supports school choice, it has not been a focus of his educational policy.
“His focus has been on improving equity and expanding opportunity by increasing investment in early care and learning, trades training and higher education, as well as working to find ways to improve efficiency in K-12 in order to have more capacity to invest in education programming,” she said.
Vermont’s education system permits limited school choice between public high schools, allowing parents to apply to send their children to public high schools outside their district. School districts are limited in how many of their students can transfer to other public schools and in how many out-of-district students they can accept.
The matter of which school a child attends grows more complicated in school districts that do not operate public schools for every grade level, which is the case in some small towns in the state.
School districts that do not operate a school for some or all grades pay “tuition” for students in their area to attend another school of the family’s choice. The tuition rate per student changes depending on location, but the statewide average last school year was $13,910 for elementary schoolers and $15,618 for high schoolers.
Often, parents choose to use their child’s allocated tuition money to send their kids to a neighboring public school, according to Ted Fisher, the digital communications and web manager for the Agency of Education. However, Fisher explained that parents can use the public tuition dollars to send their kids to approved independent schools. If those schools cost more than the district-granted tuition covers, the families must make up the difference.
Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester, Vt., and St. Johnsbury Academy are both examples approved independent schools that are able to accept students with public tuition money.
Fisher explained that the particular design of any given school district usually comes down to decisions made by locals.
“The local voters in each school district have the option of how to operate their schools and whether or not to do tuitioning,” he said. “Vermonters are really into their small towns and communities and there's a lot of systems that have been built over time to respond to local needs, and to the extent that we can, I think the education structure tries to respect that.”
In many ways, the term “school choice” is too simplified to capture the nuances of Vermont’s public education landscape, Fisher said.
“We are in this system where we have a hybrid,” he said. “It’s entirely based on where you live and the decision your voters make.”
Gov. Scott has not confirmed whether he will seek re-election, and has said he will not announce his plans until next spring.