Want to Build the Local Tax Base? Implement School Choice.


Vermont is an interesting study in the realm of education.  Given its geography and history, the state has reasonably pervasive school choice — not as something that’s recently been implemented, but as a long-standing traditional policy that the government-uber-alles crowd hasn’t killed, yet.

School districts that don’t offer classes for some grade levels “tuition” (as a verb) students to go to schools of their choice, sometimes even out of state.  Because districts can’t offer choice while having a public school, districts sometimes close down a school and lease it to a private organization so that all of the people within the district can enjoy the tuitioning benefit.  And according to the Vermont Standard, many people do, indeed, understand it as a benefit:

“I know 4-5 families that have literally picked up and moved to towns with school choice in order to get what their perceived was the benefit of going to the school they wanted,” said Laird Bradley, a realtor at Williamson Group Sotheby’s International Real Estate based in Woodstock. “For certain people (school choice) is the most meaningful component.”

Robert Wallace of Robert Wallace Real Estate said people who want their child to go to private school often look at school choice towns because they cover tuition at private schools.

The article refers to an academic study (spanning three universities) that found school choice accounting for an average 6% increase in property values, up to a 16% increase when there’s a school within reasonable commuting range (20 minutes) that’s better than the closest school.  That point isn’t intuitive, so consider Portsmouth, Tiverton, and Little Compton for illustration:  Currently, Little Compton, which has no high school, has a long-term contract to send its high-school-aged children through Tiverton to Portsmouth every school day.  In the Vermont system, Little Compton would just tuition its students, who could go to any public school or approved private school, and a house in Little Compton would be worth 16% more than the exact same house across the street in Tiverton.

It isn’t just a U.S.A. cliché to say that freedom is valuable.  Another way to say the same thing is that taking away freedom is costly.  By not offering choice, districts are suppressing property values by up to 16%, which means property tax rates have to be up to 16% higher in order to fund the same services.

One of the arguments against choice is that it will be more expensive, but that’s really a question of how much the district is currently spending and how the school choice program is structured.

Another argument is that parents and taxpayers have more control over government-run schools.  In the Vermont Standard article, that’s the argument articulated by Amy McMullen, who is chairwoman of a school board without choice (and whose job, it bears noting, is as a librarian at a government-run library in town).

Frankly, McMullen’s argument is so inverted as to be deceptive.  In public schools, parents have no real leverage unless they become so active as to build up a constituency that could sway elections.  Taxpayers who don’t have any children in the district have an even more daunting task, often inviting personal attacks from the school board/committee, the local teacher’s union, and political allies, whose special interest (the school department) is inherently structured to enable political organizing.  Anybody who has ever tried to affect even minor policies at the district level knows how difficult this process can be.

Private school parents, in contrast, can also go to the governing bodies or officers of their schools, and when they do so, they bring with them the leverage of people who can immediately take money from the school’s bottom line.  And where there is school choice, parents can change the operation of their children’s school simply by picking another school within range that does things differently.  As for non-parent taxpayers, their leverage has largely to do with how the school choice policy would work, but they wouldn’t face as solid a professionally invested opposition as they do battling public schools and teacher’s unions.  They would (or should) have the ability to affect the amount that they’ll pay, and private schools would have incentive not to abuse those who are paying the bills.

McMullen clearly understands the implications of giving parents choices, as consumers.  In a recent Valley News article, she cites the fact that students from elsewhere are choosing her district’s high school as evidence that it is a good, well-run school:

McMullen said she favors choice for high school students in the district, which she said wouldn’t have much of an impact on Windsor’s student population.

In FY 15, Windsor High School attracted 93 tuition students from Hartland, Weathersfield, West Windsor and Cornish, according to a May report from Principal Bridget Fariel to the Windsor School Board.

McMullen said that’s a sign that the school is of sufficient quality to maintain its student population. “I personally feel that we have a good high school,” she said.

So, as a public employee who’s inclined to participate in local politics, McMullen likes the idea that her town forces her neighbors to fund public schools over which she’s been able to take the reins, but she also likes that families from other towns are able to bolster her organization’s bottom line and offer the consumer’s validation of its product.  The cost of not having school choice, meanwhile, is spread out invisibly among taxpayers, who don’t realize that their property’s value would increase by up to 16% if they gave up the illusion that they have real input in how the public district runs.

  • Dave Nelson

    As the School Committee in Tiverton struggles with the dynamics of the FTR , they may want to consider supporting choice as a way to gain support of the FTR voters who are skeptical about sending more funding to the schools.