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Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

School Choice in the Time of Calvin Coolidge

Rachel Sheffield February 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Photo credit: World History Archive/Newscom

Some may think school choice is a new idea. Not so. In fact, the nation’s first voucher program began back in 1869 in the state of Vermont. Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge attended an exceptional example of one of the state’s “voucher schools.”

Amity Shlaes of the George W. Bush Institute, syndicated columnist, and author of bestsellers, The Forgotten Man and Coolidge, wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 1998 of Coolidge’s school, St. Johnsbury Academy:

Lodged securely between mountains in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, stands a school as old and traditional as most any in the nation. Its boys don button-down broadcloth and ties for morning chapel. Its girls recite Virgil in the same halls where a young Calvin Coolidge, class of 1891, absorbed his Latin. Yet this school, the St. Johnsbury Academy, is also a voucher school and has been one for well over a century. Indeed, it is a thriving voucher school: This decade, the academy marked its sesquicentennial by expanding its student body to 1,000 from 750.

Vermont’s program is called the “town tuitioning” program.

“Many small towns in Vermont do not operate high schools, and some do not have elementary schools,” explains the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “Students in those towns are eligible for vouchers to attend public schools in other towns or non-religious private schools, even those outside the state.” Essentially, a student’s hometown pays the tuition to the “receiving” school. The Friedman Foundation notes: “For 2012-13, tuition amounts were $11,119 for grades K-6 and $12,461 for grades 7-12.”

According to Shlaes:

In the early 1800s, well before public schools took root in our country, New England educators and philanthropists established academies in some rural towns. When the time came to build public schools, the so-called New England academies were so well established that towns saw no need to repeat their work. Instead they agreed to a voucher arrangement with the academies called ‘tuitioning out.’

St. Johnsbury is the most visible New England academy but by no means the only one. Vermont has several others.

Since Vermont established its program back in the 1860s, and even since Shlaes wrote her piece in the late 1990s, the school choice movement has gained significant momentum. Today, more than 20 states provide a type of private-school choice for their students. More evidence of the growing momentum surrounding school choice was this year’s third annual National School Choice Week. Over 3,500 events took place nationwide to promote and celebrate school choice.

School choice opens the door to allow families to choose a school that best fits their child’s needs. It means that a child’s academic future isn’t determined by his or her zip code. Vermont’s voucher program provides an example of nearly 150 years of school choice success in one state. Let’s hope the next several years will bring educational opportunity to all of the nation’s students.

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