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Croydon: Tiny N.H. town forever synonymous with school choice

  • Roxanne Turner stands in front of the Croydon Village school last week. Turner, who owns the Coniston General Store just a few blocks from the one-room school, has had a front-row seat for the school board’s battle against the state of New Hampshire concerning Senate Bill 9, which is set to be signed Thursday by Gov. Chris Sununu. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Roxanne Turner in front of the Croydon Village school last week. Turner said it was impression that while there people on both sides of the issue in town, but more in favor of the school board’s position than against. And a lot of people originally opposed to the idea came around when they were told they wouldn’t have to foot the full bill for a $30,000 tuition to a prep school, she said. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Roxanne Turner of the Coniston General Store crosses Route 10 in Coydon last week. Turner said it was impression that while there people on both sides of the issue in town, but more in favor of the school board’s position than against. And a lot of people originally opposed to the idea came around when they were told they wouldn’t have to foot the full bill for a $30,000 tuition to a prep school, she said. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The welcome sign for Croydon, New Hampshire along Route 10 north of Newport, New Hampshire. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Angi Beaulieu (left) of the Croydon school board and Christy Whipple of the Newport Montessori principal at the school. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Angi Beaulieu (left) of the Croydon school board and principal Christy Whipple of the Newport Montessori School were happy to hear that Gov. Chris Sununu will sign Senate Bill 9 today. Whipple said she heard people cheering outside when the bill passed. BELOW: The “Welcome to Croydon” sign is seen along Route 10 North in Newport. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, June 28, 2017

In 1906, a best-selling novel by Winston Churchill – the American writer, not the British statesman – told a seminal story of New Hampshire politics. It was called Coniston, after its setting, a fictional version of Croydon, a small town on the outskirts of the Connecticut River valley.

About 100 years later, in Croydon’s real-life Coniston General Store, Roxanne Turner got to watch another seminal Granite State political drama unfold – this time, it had to do with public money and if it should be used to pay for private school educations.

In Sullivan County Superior Court, attorneys for the state argued that the Croydon School Board had acted illegally when it tuitioned students to a private Montessori school in nearby Newport. The debate would reach the State House, as well as the state Supreme Court, and a bill handing victory to the school board – and school choice advocates across the state – will be signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in Croydon Thursday.

But it’s at Turner’s store, just yards away from the town’s red-brick, one-room Croydon Village School (“Little Red,” as it is affectionately called), where, over breakfast sandwiches and coffee, the town’s residents gathered in the morning to work out their differences about the debate roiling the town.

“Everyone was discussing the good and the bad,” she said.

The matter first kicked off in 2012, when the town voted to end its exclusive contract with Newport schools, where for decades the town had sent their students after they graduated from Little Red. After a transition year, the school board instituted a school choice program, paying a set tuition amount to the school of a family’s choosing – including private schools.

The state Department of Education began asking questions about the program in 2014, and the next year, formally told the district to stop the practice, saying it was illegal. The three-member board, led by two libertarian activists and a parent whose children attended the Montessori school, refused. Using connections with the Free State Project, they enlisted former state Supreme Court justice Chuck Douglas to represent them, and they raised more than $20,000 in private donations for legal fees to go to battle with the state.

At the Montessori school, Principal Christy Whipple said students watched online earlier this month as lawmakers cast their final vote on the bill.

“I could hear it, outside the building, when it passed. The cheering that happened. It was just awesome. I will never forget that day,” she said.

Like many in the town of 750 residents, Turner thinks the school board was in the right. For her, school choice makes sense.

“Not every kid learns the same way,” she said.

Turner went to the Croydon Village School and then on to Newport schools. Her children did, too, and she thinks one in particular would have done better in a Montessori setting.

“I think that we’ve got too much government telling them what they can and can’t do anymore,” she said of public schools. “A lot of that is the standardized testing.”

But not everyone agrees. Amanda Leslie, another Croydon resident, is all for school choice – her own child attends a Sunapee school thanks to the district’s program. But that school is public.

“I have been opposed to spending public money on private schools since it was first brought up,” she said.

Leslie teaches English at Stevens High School in Claremont. For her, diverting money from public schools to private ones short-changes a system that’s already fragile.

“Public education is already underfunded,” she said.

It’s unknown at this point what the direct impact of the so-called Croydon bill, or Senate Bill 8, will be. Technically, any school district that tuitions out students for certain grades will be eligible for tuition to non-religious private schools. But for practical reasons, smaller districts are more likely to adopt the practice than larger ones.

In Vermont, which has a choice program similar to the one the Croydon bill permits, about half of all children who live in choice towns attend private schools – 3.5 percent of the state’s overall student population, according to ProPublica.

That same ProPublica article found that while some low-income students did use vouchers to go to private schools, a disproportionate number went to public schools, while their more affluent peers went to private schools.

It’s a fear that many choice opponents cite – that school choice will funnel students into an increasingly segregated system.

And as higher-achieving, more affluent students self-select into private schools, opponents say, public schools will be left, with fewer resources, to deal with the toughest kids to educate.

In a 2014 accreditation report for Newport High, a visiting committee from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges found that, as enrollment at the struggling school declined, home schooling numbers were on the rise and nearby private schools were growing rapidly.

“These trends suggest that academically strong students are choosing other options, and the acuity of need for the students remaining in public school has been increasing,” the NEASC wrote.

The report said the district needed to do more to consistently apply its curriculum. But it also repeatedly pointed to a lack of funding as a key problem for hiring and training the necessary staff to better implement reforms.

For many opponents of the bill, the measure is just as significant for its direct impact as it is for the momentum it signals for the school choice movement in the state.

In Croydon, residents say opposition to the school board used to be a lot more vocal. But in the past two years, it’s almost entirely gone silent. In recent elections, board members have been re-elected without contest. According to Leslie, the opposition in town is basically resigned.

They “really see that the political climate in our state and country supports this,” she said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or
lduffort@cmonitor.com.)