“After all, the scuttling of an essential democratic institution such as public education—imposing in its place a radical experiment called vouchers—is the very antithesis of what conservatism is all about.”
— Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association
ST. JOHNSBURY, VT.—Parents are all conservatives at heart, and the nation’s voucher opponents have used this fact to a signal advantage. Whenever the voucher wars heat up, teachers’ unions and other foes set up the battle as a grand contest between Known and Unknown. The Known is our public schools, deficient as they may be. The Unknown is the fragile young voucher projects. And indeed, what parent wants to tie his or her child’s fate to a risky proposition?
A parent who’s been to St. Johnsbury, that’s who. Here, 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.
The academy serves as the local high school for St. Johnsbury and many neighboring towns in the poorest corner of a poor state, accepting any local student for a fee that the towns pay. Yet it is the envy of public schools for hundreds of miles around.
“People say vouchers are experimental,” says the rusty-haired headmaster, Bernier Mayo, as he leads a visitor to one of the school’s Victorian mansions via a path of ancient Norway pines. “I don’t know how you could get less experimental than this.” To spend a day strolling around the hilly campus is to be transported to another America—the America of the private community school. The academy is located downtown on Main Street, and it serves as the local high school for St. Johnsbury and many neighboring towns in the poorest corner of a poor state. It accepts any local student for a fee of $7,090 that the towns pay.
Yet St. Johnsbury is hardly your ordinary high school. Its vocational students tinker with giant school bus engines and align truck axles in an elegant, cavernous garage. Its college-bound students study fourth-year Japanese. And its ten-to-one student-teacher ratio has made it the envy of public schools for hundreds of miles around. And because St. Johnsbury is not a public high school, it can do even more. Each year the school also takes in an additional hundred-odd boarder students from across America and overseas, students whose families dally on waiting lists for the privilege of seeing their children attend a good American high school. Two years ago St. Johnsbury’s Russian pupils in the school’s ham radio club chatted with cosmonauts aboard the space station Mir.
That this lovable anomaly exists in our bureaucratized, centralized era is an accident of history. 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. The Maine town of Dover-Foxcroft has the Foxcroft Academy, established in 1823. But Bernier Mayo’s model is worth studying, if only for the flair with which it disproves each one of the voucher foes’ arguments:
- Voucher schools skim off the cream. The academy takes many handicapped and special education pupils, including children who will never read. Its vocational programs accept dozens who will never attend college. In one popular program, student carpenters build a complete house—and then sell it via the local realtor to raise funds for their shop program.
- Voucher schools don’t get better results. St. Johnsbury Academy students perform at the 90th percentile or above on advanced placement tests for English, European history, American history, and biology. A larger percentage of its graduating seniors go on to college or further education than any public high school in the state.
- Voucher schools don’t connect with the community. Every day, dozens of townies enjoy free use of the school’s luxurious weight room, its newly restored gymnasium, and its competition-size pool—all structures paid for by private donations. Each September, the school offers St. Johnsbury’s poorer families a gift one would be hard put to imagine coming from a public school: It buys school clothes and knapsacks for students who can’t afford them. In 1996, townies packed the gymnasium to cheer on the school basketball team as it captured the state’s Division I championship.
- Voucher schools underpay teachers. The starting salary at St. Johnsbury is $22,500, around the average for the region. Its master teachers and department heads earn up to $50,000, about the same as senior teachers in area public schools. The academy even offers special benefits to teachers that public schools don’t: It pays 100 percent of tuition and costs for every teacher working toward a master’s degree and gives teachers a year’s sabbatical at 80 percent salary every twelve years. The results of these attractions are piled up around Mayo’s cherry-paneled office—one thousand résumés from teacher candidates—this at a time of a nationwide teacher shortage.
- Voucher schools will overcharge. The academy’s tuition level is currently below the average amount spent on public high school students in Vermont.
So what’s the magic formula? The first answer: no teachers’ union. Mayo and fellow administrators can pick teachers they like, not ones who have accumulated the requisite number of state qualifications. “Some of my very best teachers are straight out of college,” says Mayo, uttering ed-school heresy. “Certification is irrelevant to us.”
Another key is that St. Johnsbury isn’t afraid to treat a school as what it should be—a multimillion-dollar firm that must serve customers to stay solvent. Every morning Mayo logs on to his computer to conduct business from his school web site. At an August breakfast at a local restaurant, Mayo spots town business leaders at a neighboring table and walks over to chat. They mention that the region is confronting a shortage of machinists. Right away, the headmaster starts laying plans to reinstate an old machinists’ course.
In summer, the school earns extra cash for its coffers by conducting an Advanced Placement Institute for high schoolers from across the state who want to improve their scores on standardized tests for college entrance. In winter it welcomes its foreign students, whose families pay $22,000 a year for their children’s stay at St. Johnsbury. Mayo recalls that, in the 1980s, he and his admissions director traveled to Asia to make cold calls for students. The results of one trip would please any entrepreneur: A $12,000 voyage raised $1 million in fresh tuition money.
Keeping busybody government officials out of the schools’ affairs has also been crucial to St. Johnsbury’s success. In the 1980s, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union sought to launch a suit against one of the school’s most treasured traditions—the morning chapel session, which included a moment of silence. The ACLU could find no candidate to lend his name to the complaint. Perceiving that their school’s independence was at stake, students, faculty, and alumni closed ranks against the outsiders.
The academy is currently facing fresh challenges. The state’s courts and its Democratic legislators have put through a bill centralizing property tax revenues and reducing all school funding to a flat $5,100 per student—a rate insufficient for St. Johnsbury’s programs. In November, the Supreme Court let stand a state ruling upholding the constitutionality of Milwaukee’s program, which extends vouchers to private schools. The Court’s decision to sidestep the issue leaves the future of voucher programs brighter.
On the wall of the same chapel that rankled the ACLU hangs a quote from President Coolidge: “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in the union and our institutions should languish, it all could be replenished from the generous store held by the people in this brave little State of Vermont.” Flowery words but ones that certainly should inspire the nation’s voucher movement as it ponders the St. Johnsbury model. As Vermont goes, so may the nation.