School boards, administrators and parents confused by Vermont's new education reform law got some clarification last week from the State Board of Education.
Act 46, passed by lawmakers during the last Legislative session, encourages and incentivizes school consolidation. But as soon as school boards began discussing the options proposed by the new law, questions arose around the specifics of how local schools would be affected, and what would happen if districts that offer school choice consolidated with districts that did not offer choice.
State Board of Education Chairman Stephan Morse says the law is clear that districts will have to make a decision, and that a larger consolidated district cannot have some schools that offer choice and others that do not.
"You either have to continue to run and operate a school, or offer choice," Morse said. "You cannot do both under the current statute. We're not making a philosophical statement of whether that should be allowed or not, but it's clear from the legislation, in our opinion, that you cannot do both."
The State Board of Education last week voted to clarify the issue after school board members around the state asked the state board for guidance.
Morse said the board itself needed to understand the new law because districts will be seeking state board approval for consolidated districts in time for 2016 Town Meeting Day votes.
"One of the issues that surfaced early on was whether a district could be created where school choice could be offered and also at the same time operate a high school," Morse said. "And based on extensive legal work, and looking at Act 46 and other sections of existing law, we concluded that it was quite clear that you could either offer choice in a new district or continue to operate a particular school."
Vermont has limited school choice and some districts that do not operate middle or high schools, for instance, offer tuition to families.
The money can be used for private or public schools outside of the district.
Morse made it clear that the State Board cannot compel a district to drop, or adopt school choice.
The board at the same meeting also clarified that only towns can adopt or discontinue school choice through a town-wide vote.
The sweeping education law is likely to raise other issues as districts embark on the road toward consolidation and Morse says the state board wants to work on issues as they arise to make sure districts that want to move ahead with consolidation can do so.
"What we're doing is trying to make sure that if there's need for clarity that we will provide it as the school districts start the process," he said. "And we will work very actively with new districts as they're formed and provide clarity when it is necessary."
Towns that approve consolidated districts before July 1, 2016, stand to see significant tax breaks under the law's accelerated process.
Morse says 10 or 15 districts could be up for town-wide votes next year.