Vermont Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca was crystal clear from the start that he would not entertain the idea of a community closing its public school, then turning around and reopening it as a private school to which the town pays tuition.
He was even clearer in the end six months after being asked to convene a committee to study the matter. In a report issued last week, he determined that the state should forbid communities from following that course of action.
"It's hard for me to go counter to the position that is part of me and what I believe in," Vilaseca said.
Vilaseca's recommendations come on the heels of a decision by North Bennington residents this year to close their school and create a private school in the same building with the same students, same principal and many of the same teachers. This fall saw the opening of the new Village School of North Bennington.
Vilaseca was directed by legislators to chair a study committee comprised of education leaders from around the state, including several associated with private schools. Before Vilaseca issued a report this week that plainly states it's his opinion, not the full committee's, the group had met three times. A dissenting report was issued by several committee members.
According to Terri Hallenbeck of Burlington Free Press, Vilaseca, who leaves office next month, said he remains opposed to having a well-functioning school such as North Bennington close in favor of a private school because it gives local taxpayers less control over the budget and operations, while also leaving questions about whether the school would provide services such as special education. Additionally, he said as education is funded by statewide property taxes, the concerns extend beyond the local community making the decision.
"We're all paying for it," he said.
Restriction were posed by Vilaseca, on private schools who take publicly funded students to ensure they offer the same services and meet the same testing standards as public schools, as well as recommending barring of communities from turning public schools to private. Some support was generated from his ideas. However, independent school leaders blasted him, saying he brushed off the whole process.
"There was no point in having a committee if he was going to just give his opinion," said Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, who served on the committee and signed onto a dissenting report that argued changes in state law are unnecessary and would impede "the ability of towns to make choices in the best interests of their children."
Vilaseca disregarded discussion about the root causes of North Bennington's decision and a 1998 decision by Winhall residents to close their school and later open a private school according to Moore.
"The reasons have nothing to do with private schools and everything to do with public schools," he said. "My view is the public school system needs to look at why no one offered to support these schools."
Arguing that fears the school would be closed were based on "scare tactics", Vilaseca disagreed that there was any legitimate reason for North Bennington to go private.