Bongartz & Beck: Independent Schools Contribute Greatly to Public Education
This commentary is written by State Representatives Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, and Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury.
We come together to voice our support for local schools – public and independent – and dispel misinformation that negatively portrays the way our communities deliver education.
This question is non-partisan. Our constituents in the communities we represent are no different from the rest of Vermont; they value local schools, local control, and the education provided to all children in Vermont.
Eighty-eight cities in Vermont publicly enroll students for some or all grades, and all but five of those students at the high school level. Of the 85,806 students enrolled in Vermont schools, 2,594 attend an accredited independent school. Of these 2,594, 1,725 attend one of the traditional city academies located in Lyndon, Manchester, St. Johnsbury and Thetford.
These municipal academies largely predate public education, so the public education system developed around them. Given the rural nature of the surrounding communities, it would have been inefficient, redundant and expensive to also build public schools.
Thetford Academy is the oldest, founded in 1819. Burr and Burton Academy has served pupils in its home towns since 1829, St. Johnsbury Academy since 1842 and Lyndon Institute since 1867. These schools have never been schools public, but they have served their communities continuously for three centuries.
Local communities continue to desire the educational opportunities and offerings offered by these institutions. They serve students regardless of their socio-economic background, provide special education services and, in the North East Kingdom, technical education as well. These academies attract students from other states and countries, adding diversity to our school communities.
The four municipal academies save valuable resources to the Education Fund. The Vermont Education Agency tracks spending by district type. Its latest report indicates that districts operating an elementary school and publicly educating their high school students have projected expenditures (including special education) of $16,656, compared to $20,458 in districts operating a public school for all levels. Much of this savings for the Education Fund is due to independent schools raising funds for capital construction.
Arguments that independent schools add costs to the education fund are based on two faulty premises: first, that there are public schools in areas where independent schools exist with the capacity to serve the same students – it does not there is not any. And second, that the marginal cost of education decreases in public schools as the number of students increases. This is also not the case. According to the Education Agency, large districts in Vermont have higher student budget expenditures than small districts.
The independent school landscape also includes many smaller schools that are important to the education of Vermont students. Many, including independent therapeutic schools and others, offer specialized services and programs or smaller settings to meet the diverse and publicly unmet needs of Vermont children.
No school, public or independent, can meet the needs of every child. These special schools, which receive referrals from each school district, save children who otherwise would 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 cities share a border with another state or province. And roughly equal education dollars go into Vermont and go out.
Some commentators use the term “private schools” rather than proper independent school terminology, and equate Vermont’s three-century history of paying tuition to a “voucher system”. Their intent is to inflame the misguided notion that our rich history fits into national policy debates about 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 once again leading the nation with a mosaic of honest, straightforward, and excellent education that serves our children with love, empathy, and care. Our public and independent school models may differ, but both produce quality results. They are all part of our educational success; let’s not undermine one to the detriment of the other.