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NEK Superintendents Appeal to Lawmakers about School Choice

The Northeast Kingdom is characterized by its sparse population, which means a lot of school districts don't have their own high schools, forcing their students to utilize school choice.
MONTPELIER - The Northeast Kingdom is characterized by its sparse population, which means a lot of school districts don't have their own high schools, forcing their students to utilize school choice.

Superintendents came from all over the NEK to speak to the House Education Committee at the Statehouse Wednesday.

Superintendent Victoria Scheufler has 1,500 students in six school districts.

"None of these school districts operate a public, 9-12 high school," she said to the committee. That means after 8th grade, students in the Caledonia North Supervisory Union have to pick a public or independent school outside their district, and the district pays tuition to that school.

"Public schools establish tuitions approved by voters," Scheufler said. "That works well."

What she says doesn't work well is the fact that independent schools like Saint Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute can set their own rates without answering to voters, even though the public school districts have to pay up.

"The annual tuition cost paid for every student who, by choice, goes to either of these schools is $2,000 to $2,500 per student....this unregulated higher tuition cost is draining the amount left in the overall budgets that operate public schools," she said.

She asked lawmakers Wednesday to consider regulating how much those independent schools can charge districts.

Some students use school choice not only to hop districts, but cross state lines.

"What I'm requesting is that the definition of a Vermont student be changed to include both resident and tuition-paying students," said Chris Mason, Superintendent for the Essex North Supervisory Union. Mason says New Hampshire students, many from West Stewartstown, pay tuition to Canaan Public Schools in Vermont and offset about 10% of the district's budget.

He wants to make sure those students can equally access Vermont-funded programs like High School Completion and the dual enrollment program that lets high school students take college courses.

"Vermont students are Vermont students," said Mason. "When they tuition in from New Hampshire, they should be considered Vermont students."

Stephen Urgenson, the Superintendent from Orleans Central Supervisory Union, expressed concerns about technology capabilities.

"The use of information technology in the classroom is growing at a geometric rate, but the same can't be said about our access to broadband," he testified to the committee. "Without the leadership and support of the Legislature, we will not be able to satisfy the increasing need for expanded, affordable, high speed Internet access and to provide a 21st century education to our children."

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