By Michael Bielawski, Vermont Watchdog
Representatives and concerned citizens gathered at the State House on Thursday, March 17, to study the continued impact of Act 46 on school choice in Vermont.
The legislation was pitched last year largely on the notion that Vermont’s school choice would be left undisturbed. However, as non-operating choice districts begin merging with operating districts school choice is being eliminated, as has happened in Elmore and Westford.
“I know that Act 46 says nothing in this act is going to make you give up your choice, but in fact we’ve found that’s not the way it is working,” state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said at the meeting. Browning proposed an amendment, unsuccessfully, to the House Education Committee to allow schools to maintain choice while merging under Act 46.
State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, represents a town that is in a unique situation regarding school choice and Act 46. In 1954, Vernon’s Brattleboro High School was allowed to have school choice despite joining a union school district. Hebert says that situation is now in jeopardy.
“What’s come into play now is if we do this new unified district [to conform to Act 46], if someone launches a legal challenge in that district challenging why we get school choice, there’s an equity issue,” he said. “We’re not sure that a court is going to have our historic and traditional values, and our legal precedents, outweigh what the equity would be.” He added that Act 46 is too ambiguous. “Part of the problem is, I’ve gone to several different study committees now and everyone has a different opinion of what things in the bill mean,” he said.
Under Act 46, the state uses tax breaks to incentivize districts to merge. Districts that comply reap the best rewards. If districts choose to do nothing, they can still apply for an alternative structure agreement or seek exemptions. Districts that fail to find merger partners, or intentionally choose not to consolidate, must demonstrate that their services are necessary and meet standards set by Act 46.