Democrats favor school choice in Vermont, nationwide

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A national survey of likely voters has found that nearly 70 percent of Americans support school choice, including a large majority of Democrats.

The results mirror support for the concept in Vermont, the birthplace of school choice.

The survey, conducted this month by Democratic polling firm Beck Research, shows 69 percent of Americans say parents should have the right to use education tax dollars to send their child to the public or private school that best serves their needs. Just 27 percent opposed the idea.

Results show the issue is popular across party lines. According to the survey, 60 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents favor school choice. A full 81 percent of Republicans approve the idea.

The findings mirror statewide polling conducted in Vermont in 2009, which found that 65 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents support town tuitioning, Vermont???s 145-year-old school-choice tradition.

Kevin Chavous, executive counsel of the American Federation for Children, hailed the survey as proof ???Americans overwhelmingly believe a ZIP code should not dictate a child???s future.???

Chavous, a Democrat, said he witnessed the transformative impact of choice while serving as a Washington, D.C., city councilman.

???During my time on the D.C. council, I faced firsthand the results of our failing to educate all children. Educational choice has become a lifeline for far too many residents here in the District of Columbia who should be getting what they are entitled to with their neighborhood public school but frankly do not,??? he said.

???Based on our robust charter school movement, our D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, many predominantly minority children are able to attain the riches of American society and receive the education they deserve.???

Since 1869, Vermont has had school choice. The state???s town tuitioning model originated as a way to educate students in rural areas that lacked a public school.

Today, Vermonters in 93 towns have the option to send their children to the independent school, or nearby public school, of their choice. Parents in these towns receive a tuition voucher averaging $14,055 per student. Approximately 5 percent of K-12 students receive the voucher.

Town tuitioning is a highly efficient system for delivering quality education. Compared to the cost of tuition for independent schools, the per-pupil cost of education in Vermont???s government-run schools will reach $19,752 in 2016 ??? the highest expense in the nation.

Since Act 60 was passed in 1997, Vermont???s K-12 spending has risen from $780 million to nearly $1.5 billion. During that same time, student enrollment has plummeted from 104,000 students down to about 82,000.

Instead of cutting back education spending to stay in line with the student population, the Legislature has continued to approve education budget increases year after year, sending property taxes soaring.

Based on recent examples, school choice may be the most effective way to cut costs while delivering the high quality of education Vermonters expect.

In 2013, the public elementary school in North Bennington switched to an independent school to participate in the town tuitioning program. Within one year, the school???s budget shrunk from $2.1 million down to about $1.8 million. Head of School Tom Martin said town tuitioning enabled teachers and administrators to offer the same great education, but without the bureaucratic overhead related to state supervisory union services.

Vermont state Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, a member of a newly organized school choice caucus, said choice is a solution everyone can embrace.

???If you survey the general public, regardless of party affiliation ??? Democrat, Republican, Progressive, independent ??? the numbers are in the 60 to 65 percent range. It has nothing to do with party. We here in the Legislature need to recognize that,??? Hebert said.

According to Hebert, expanding school choice must become part of the solution to Vermont???s education financing crisis.

???It???s a very important piece of changing how education gets delivered in this state. It???s just another method of delivery.???

However, he added it will take courage and a bipartisan effort to change the status quo.

???We???ve got to be willing to put all options on the table. There can be no sacred cows,??? he said.

Chavous said many lawmakers are unwilling to put school choice on the table, due to politics.

???Unfortunately the politics of education has become a major barrier to educational choice. Far too many elected officials run away from the issue because of the pressure put on them by the proverbial status quo environment,??? he said.

Even so, Chavous, a black American who calls education choice ???the civil rights issue of the 21st century,??? said the 2014 election marked a sea change.

???The 2014 midterm elections saw that nearly every pro-school-choice candidate around the country ??? who campaigned on that issue won. It sends a loud and clear message, particularly to the two largest teachers unions that invested $100 million in those races, only to fall short in the vast majority of them.???

Hebert said lawmakers should give Vermonters what they want.

???This is what our constituents want on a very broad base, and it???s something we have to strive to do. We can???t let political affiliation stand in our way.???

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