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Candidates discuss school choice at Grafton forum

GRAFTON—Local Senate and House candidates discussed their positions and answered questions from members of the public on school choice and charter schools at a forum in Grafton on Sept. 23.

But it did not take long for the discussion at the White Church to shift to the economy and Vermont’s aging population.

Windham County Senate candidates Hilary Cooke, Lynn Corum, Peter Galbraith, and Sen. Jeanette White and House candidates Chris Moore, Rep. Carolyn Partridge, and Rep. Michael Obuchowski had two minutes to state their respective positions on school choice. They responded to questions from the audience.

School choice allows for the use of public funds for students to attend the school of their choice. Charter schools operate under a charter — an education contract — detailing specialized public school’s goals and academic accountability. They often also operate with fewer restrictions than traditional public schools.

Beating the soapbox

Obuchowski said the state looked at school choice in 1998 and charter schools in 2002.

“It seems if you want to address either issue, go back to the studies, recast and do over,” he said adding the issue was complex and people needed to be careful.

Obuchowski said he is introducing a “minimalist” piece of legislation that would help Vermont get a portion of $3.45 billion in stimulus funds for education.

He cautioned people might not want school choice for various reasons like the conflict of using public funds for private use and needing to be “careful of what you do because you have to pay for it.”

Partridge, who is also the chair of the Windham School Board, said she is “really passionate about education. Education is one of the best investments we can make.” She said children deserve the best in education and if a public school isn’t working, parents should become involved with the school.

“Vermont needs younger people and a younger population,” said Moore.

Moore favors school choice and charter schools, but said he perceives that the decreasing numbers of young families, and jobs to support them, as the bigger issue.

Corum, a member of the Brattleboro Union High School Board, said if people are to be honest about charter schools, they needed to consider them for K-12 and not simply high school.

“It strikes me, in education, that we try and go for equality,” she said.

But, she said, people needed to define quality, which gives a better range than equality because when schools strove for equality they usually ended up lowering the standards to the lowest common denominator.

Galbraith said Vermont has some of the best schools in the U.S. and he wanted to preserve the state’s current choice options.

“What made this country great is its commitment to public education,” said Galbraith.

He also cautioned school choice and charter schools could “impoverish” existing small community schools if a number of students fled at once.

“I’m favorably disposed to the notion of school choice,” said Cooke, a former Newfane school board member.

He said school choice was about creating ownership for families.

“There are many sides to this issue,” said White, who voted against Act 153 —  passed by the Legislature last spring, which supports the voluntary merging of school districts — because she felt it added a whole new level of bureaucracy to school administration.

White said she couldn’t weigh in on a future bill about school choice without first seeing it, but felt everyone needed to strengthen public schools by thinking outside the box.

Question and answer time

Questions from the audience started with school choice before veering into declining numbers of children statewide, the state’s economic health and the burden of property taxes socking both young families and retirees.

“We need more children to keep schools open,” said Moore, referencing the recent closing of the Athens Elementary School.

Partridge said Windham sends more in taxes to the state than it gets back for education.

An audience member and Grafton resident said if property taxes keep increasing in her town, people will soon see “for sale” signs up and down Main Street.

“The teachers union is the elephant in the room. Shame on us that we let a union with self interest get in the way of our students doing the best possible,” said Corum.

Cooke described education-related Acts 60, 68 and 153 as examples of “thinking inside the box.”

A mother in the audience said her family has moved once within Vermont, to Grafton, which tuitions its seventh- and eighth-graders, so her daughter could attend The Compass School in Westiminster.

But soon her daughter will no longer qualify for Grafton town tuition and they are faced with the same decision, where to move so her daughter could attend the school best for her?

Galbraith said Vermonters could do high paying jobs from home in the 21st century, but first the state needs 21st century access in the form of broadband and cell service.

Understanding positions

“Vermont is one of only 10 states in the country that has no charter school law,” said Anna Vesely Pilette, co-organizer of the forum. She expressed concern over Act 153.

She said one-third of towns in Vermont use school choice tuitioning, like Grafton.

Some parents choose to send their children to the Compass School, but are confronted with the problem of what to do when their children reach ninth grade and the town will no longer pay Compass’ tuition.

If Grafton chooses to merge with another district under Act 153, parents could lose their choice completely.

In Vesely Pilette’s ideal world, state money would follow children to the schools they want to attend. She feels this would create a healthy learning environment for students and teachers who suffer under a tough system.

If schools thrived because they attracted more students, it would be a win-win for everyone, she said.

Molly Leuschel, who co-organized the event, thought the evening went well and she had a better understanding of where candidates stand on the school choice issue.

“But I also think they were not well informed,” she said, because she felt there were a number of blanket statements.

Leuschel’s Grafton house is for sale and the family rents in Manchester so her daughter can go to school there. She blinked back tears.

“I don’t see what the resistance [to school choice] is in Vermont. A lot of it is protecting the system,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #69 (Wednesday, September 29, 2010).

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