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On the first full day of school at Sharon Academy last Friday, September sunshine washed over the hilltop campus and dozens of students tromped inside, passing the yurts out front that serve as overflow classrooms.
Fundraising is under way for an addition to the private school, where about 85 percent of students pay with public funds under Vermont's long-standing "tuitioning" program. It allows towns that don't have an elementary, middle or high school to use public dollars to send students to public or private schools of their choice.
That has helped Sharon Academy to receive millions of taxpayer dollars and grow from zero to 160 students since its founding 20 years ago. Over the same period, public school enrollment in Vermont has dropped by about 20 percent.
The decline has intensified competition for students. It has also renewed criticism that the tuition program creates an unfair playing field since independent schools can benefit from public funding without having to enroll all students who arrive at the door, as public schools must.
The Vermont State Board of Education is pushing new regulations that would force independent schools to behave more like public schools if they want public tuition money. They'd be required to open admission to all, share budgets and audits with the Vermont Agency of Education, and offer special education services on par with public schools.
Associations that represent Vermont private schools oppose the regulations. In letters to the state education board, they have argued that the new rules would be expensive, intrusive and take away their freedom to provide popular alternatives to public schools.
Critics of the proposals include Michael Livingston, head of school at Sharon Academy and cochair of the Council of Independent Schools. That organization has weighed in with a letter to the state board, as has the Vermont Independent Schools Association. Both groups maintain that the changes would force many independent schools to stop accepting publicly funded students.
The rules would "undermine" Vermont's diverse network of independent schools and reduce choices available to families, according to a letter written to the education board by Livingston and Mark H. Tashjian, headmaster of Burr and Burton Academy, an independent school in Manchester.
Livingston believes the proposed regulations are an effort to pull students back to public schools, plain and simple.
"Is there a problem, or are we searching for a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist?" Livingston asked rhetorically. "How much of this really just boils down to the fact that there are a lot fewer students than in 1996, 1997?"
Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe declined to comment for this story.
Lean and energetic, Livingston greeted students warmly last Friday as he roamed the 100-acre high school campus on a plateau with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the narrow river valley below.
The athletic fields behind the high school building spread like a green carpet, with thick forest rising steeply on one side. Livingston bent over to pick up tidbits of trash left on the grass by picnicking students and reeled off his theories about the importance of teaching "executive thinking" and self-motivation.
The school strives to avoid the "lost in the shuffle" syndrome that can happen at larger high schools, by strongly pushing participation: About 65 percent of students play on a sports team, and for two weeks every fall, everyone is required to take part in the annual musical — even if it's as a costume maker or set designer.
Sharon has no honors classes or Advanced Placement classes. "AP classes are being overenrolled and overprescribed, and it's résumé packing, and we do not subscribe to résumé packing," Livingston explained. But the school has a reputation for academic rigor. Juniors and seniors do a mini-thesis; homework can take two hours a night.
Amber Aldrich, a 15-year-old sophomore whose brunette hair had a bluish hue, chose Sharon Academy despite the perception that other schools are "less work,'' she said. Her first year was rough: She flunked history and repeated the course over the summer.
The school has "pushed me to really see who I am," said Aldrich, who is intent on completing college some day — something her parents didn't do. "I want to give more as a student; I want to learn how to learn," Aldrich said.
Livingston credits teachers and students with building Sharon's supportive, healthy school climate. His role is more coach than school disciplinarian, he said, noting he has suspended only two students in 16 years at the school.
Of course, he's also a cheerleader. "There ought to be more Sharon Academies," Livingston said. "Not fewer." He said he firmly believes the proposed state regulations threaten Sharon Academy and a school choice system that serves Vermont well.
Critics of the status quo say it perpetuates unfairness. Sharon Academy has only a handful of special-needs students, a much smaller number than most public schools. The academy is licensed to serve special ed students in two areas, but it would be costly and difficult to offer services equivalent to public schools, according to Livingston.
That means some disabled students can't attend Sharon Academy, despite its "open enrollment policy."
A handful of the larger independent schools in the state, such as St. Johnsbury Academy, serve a wider variety of special needs students. Vermont also has many small independent schools that serve special needs students exclusively, such as St. Albans' Soar Learning Center and the Howard Center's Baird School.
Some independent schools that accept publicly funded students have no special education certifications at all, which effectively shuts out some of Vermont's neediest kids. In response to concerns about exclusion and lack of oversight of public funds flowing to private schools, the state education board voted unanimously July 29 in favor of the new rules. But they're not a done deal.
The revisions must be approved by the Vermont Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules as well as by a legislative rules committee. The process could take four to six months. Opponents vow to fight the proposals.
Supporters say the changes are overdue. There's no justification for a system that allows private institutions to selectively determine which publicly funded students they will serve, according to the Vermont School Boards Association.
"We commit, as Vermonters, a tremendous amount of public resources to the education of our children. It is critical that those resources carry with them not only the same expectations of quality, but of equity and access," Nicole Mace, executive director of the VSBA, told Seven Days.
Vermont's tuitioning program is unusual, a fact that the VSBA emphasized in a letter to the state education board. It allows towns to send tuition money not just to the village next door, but to schools in other states — even other countries. The program, which dates back more than 100 years, developed out of necessity in a small, rural state where it didn't make sense for every tiny town to have schools covering all the grades. Today only one other state, Maine, has anything comparable to Vermont's program, according to the VSBA.
About 5,400 Vermont students exercise choice under the tuition program — and they represent about 7 percent of all publicly funded students, according to the VSBA. Vermont has subsidized students at in-state ski academies and Waldorf schools and at private schools in Switzerland and Québec, as well as elite boarding schools around New England.
Public funding does not cover the whole tab at prep schools such as the Groton School or Philips Exeter Academy, and parents must make up the difference. Vermont sets general guidelines on what it will pay in tuition: This year, it's $14,773 for secondary schools and $12,938 for elementary schools, although the rules allow for higher payments in some cases.
Sharon Academy sets its tuition to match the state allocation, about $14,700 this year, so parents on the public dime don't have to kick in their own money.
Last year, Vermont paid out around $97.5 million under the town tuition program, with $43 million going to public schools and $54 million to independent schools, mostly in-state. About $12.7 million went to out-of-state schools, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.
Critics who dislike seeing those dollars migrate over the Vermont border have tried to end out-of-state payments, so far unsuccessfully. Vermont's school district consolidation law, Act 46, is also putting pressure on some towns to drop choice and designate a public school.
A number of the public high schools near Sharon Academy are facing extinction. There are fewer than six seniors this year at Rochester High School, according to Bruce Labs, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union. A study is under way to explore consolidation of the supervisory union's four small public high schools.
Although demographic trends such as Vermont's low birth rate are the main sources of education-funding crisis, Labs pointed out that the tuition program also contributes, by siphoning money and making it harder for public schools to reinvent themselves.
Public schools can't build much "if everybody's allowed to just take their money and go wherever they want to go," he said.
Meanwhile, students and parents who live in choice towns are voting with their feet for schools like Sharon Academy.
Emma Petersson, a senior with cropped hair and a velvet ribbon around her neck, listened intently in an all-school meeting last Friday as Livingston urged students to better themselves and their community. Then the woman who runs the lunch program reminded the kids to put their plates in the dishwasher properly after eating.
Asking students to be responsible for their dishes is one of the ways Sharon Academy reminds them to take ownership — of little things and big things, such as their education. "You're responsible for taking care of the school yourself. It's not somebody else's job," explained Petersson, 18, of Hartland.
Petersson attends Sharon Academy because her town doesn't have a high school. She selected it over public high schools in South Royalton and Hanover, N.H., for the school's academics and philosophy.
The fact that students actively choose Sharon makes them more invested, Petersson reasoned: "Everybody who is here wants to be here."
Tags: Education, Education, Back to School, private schools, public funding, education funding, Vermont State Board of Education, Vermont Agency of Education, Council of Independent Schools, Vermont Independent Schools Association, Soar Learning Center, Baird School, Vermont Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules, Sharon Academy, Burr and Burton Academy, St. Johnsbury Academy