Albright: NEK School Consolidation

Mar 7, 2016

The Northeast Kingdom, where I live, is a gorgeous place to call home. Ridges, valleys, farm towns, sunsets - it’s a feast for the eyes. But putting food on the table isn’t easy for everyone. There’s high unemployment, rising taxes, and crumbling infrastructure. Yet those very liabilities have made my Kingdom neighbors resilient and creative.

Here’s the latest challenge we face. Act 46, the new school consolidation law, calls into question a valuable asset: school choice. The State Board of Education says a newly merged district can’t be asked to simultaneously support public schools and send state funding to private ones. Consolidation could lower some school expenses. But it might also weaken a de facto voucher system that allows parents who live in towns without schools to send students and state tuition dollars to public or private ones elsewhere.
I take this personally because my two little grandchildren live in Kirby, a school choice town, and I want them to have the best education their parents can find and afford. There are lots of good public schools in the Kingdom. But some children thrive better in private programs, and I’ve seen no evidence that public schools have suffered from that competition.

Which is why Kirby and nine other communities are cleverly considering a “side-by-side merger.” They may form an all-choice district alongside another district - in this case, Canaan - which has its own K-12 school program. So Kirby, Canaan and the nine other towns would all share one central office and one superintendent, which would change governance and possibly reduce administrative costs. But remotely located Canaan would not have to require out-of-towners from the all-choice towns, to take long, costly bus rides to attend its public schools. If this plan is approved by local school boards and the State Board of Education, parents who have choice now would continue to be able to select either public or private schools.

A lot of my neighbors fix their tractors rather than buying new ones. And the philosophy, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” also sums up a lot of thinking about school choice in the Kingdom. That flexibility keeps many young families living here, despite the challenges, and brings in new taxpayers with children — community-minded families like my daughter and her husband. I hope they’ll stick around.