EAI-PAI school choice debate sparks discussion

Editor’s note: This article is by Anna Boarini of the Manchester Journal, in which it was first published Jan. 17, 2014.

MANCHESTER — What is the best education system for the children of Vermont? A system where school choice is fostered? Or one where public schools are held to high standards and are the backbone of democracy?

Tuesday night, these and other questions were wrestled with as a part of a debate jointly sponsored by the Ethan Allen Institute and the Public Assets Institute, two think tanks based in northern Vermont. The debate focused on the two different school systems in Vermont: the public school system present in many towns, and the idea of school choice, where a town will provide tuition for children to attend the school they want.

The advocates for school choice were Daren Houck, headmaster of The Mountain School at Winhall until July 1, when he takes over as headmaster of The Lyndon Institute, and Robert Roper, president of The Ethan Allen Institute. Weighing in on the side of public schools was Paul Cillo, founder, president and executive director of the Public Assets Institute and author of Act 60, and William “Bill” Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado and a former Vermont school superintendant.

The debate, moderated by Andrew McKeever, managing editor of The Manchester Journal, asked the panelists to answer the question: How should Vermont school districts use public funds for their children’s education should they operate community public schools or pay tuition for their children to attend a public or private school?

School choice advocates opened the debate.

Roper said the 150-year-old system of school choice in 93 towns is unique to the state.

“Vermont is unique — we have a publicly funded education system with two distinct branches,” he said.

Choice, Roper said, empowers children.

“I’m not here to say that government-run schools are bad … the critical factor is choice,” he said.

Houck said school choice is gives students a better opportunity for an equitable education. Vermont and Wisconsin, he said, are the only two states in the union that have met the 90 percent graduation rate.

“Both states,” he said, “have extensive school choice.”

Houck said the world that we live in has changed and now education has to change as well.

Cillo said in his opening statement that education is what keeps communities and citizens strong. Education, he said, is specifically mentioned in Vermont’s constitution as a civic requirement.

“We assert that the best way to provide high quality education, to every Vermont child,” he said, “is through the operation of democratically governed, public schools throughout the state.”

More than 96 percent of Vermont children are educated in public schools. School choice options, Cillo said, were created in rural areas that were unable to support public schools.

“Now, this long tradition has been retrofitted into the context of a … national debate, a debate where private interests are seeking to end public schools,” he said. “[Public schools] guarantee democratic control and equal access to all students.”

After the opening remarks, both sides gave rebuttals and asked each other questions.

“I just want to make it clear we are not against the public education system,” Houck said, in his response. “We just believe in options. We want to work together.”

He said research shows that independent or private schools tend to do better in terms of student achievement and parent involvement.

Houck said independent schools are not just private entities looking to get money from the state. They too, have a budget process that requires them to be fiscally conservative.

He also rebutted the assertion that school choice segregates students.

“Research doesn’t show that at all, it actually shows the opposite,” he said. “School choice increases minority student enrollment. Public education on the other hand, shows us, on the other hand, the white and black schools.”

In his rebuttal on behalf of Public Assets Institute, Mathis said that private interests, like independent schools, only have their eye on the money spent on education and are operating in the public interest.

Mathis said independent schools segregate students.

“Our findings are unequivocal, and anybody who does this kind of research knows, they segregate by race, they segregate by income,” he said. He said privatizing schools has the effect of disempowering parents and citizens.

In a question and answer session panelists answered questions from each other and audience members.

“If the Vermont public education system were to be structured the way you would like it, would all Vermont communities privatize the public schools?” Cillo asked.

Both Roper and Houck stressed the importance of universal school choice, which they said helps create better and more options for families, as well as stronger schools.

Following closing arguments from each panel, the floor was opened for questions from the audience.

“Will Vermont children have access to public schools provided a steady number of those children continue to choose an independent school option?” an audience member asked.

Cillo said the 93 towns that provide school choice represent only 4 percent of students.

An audience member asked if all Vermont children had school choice, wouldn’t schools have to turn kids away? Is there a scalable plan?

Houck said such a system would be scalable because public schools would still exist. There is an opportunity for both types of schools to get a chance to better serve students.

“School choice will continue to push us down that road where each school becomes more unique, tailored to the individual students needs, as our world completely turns upside down,” he said.

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  • Dave Bellini

    “Why should we turn over our democracy to a group of people who are not elected…”
    Yeah, like the Green Mountain Care Board.

  • John McClaughry

    I can’t help but be Amused at Bill Mathis saying that “private interests, like independent schools, only have their eye on the money spent on education and are not your best interests or the interest of your town.”
    I suppose he is contrasting well-heeled independent school employees with the public school administrators and teachers who are struggling to get by on starvation wages, all in the name of our democracy…

    • David Bresett

      Typical McClaughrey. Never a solution, but always quick with a quip.

  • Janice Prindle

    Our system in Vermont is not broke, and we clearly do not need to fix it, just to accommodate some political goal for “choice,” which already exists in Vermont (at the middle/high school level) solely because our lack of population density and unique geography makes it impractical for every town to have a separate high school, though we have always had a commitment to education as a community responsibility, and a desire for local control. Hence, the “academy” movement in the early 19th century. I taught for 15 years, until I retired, in a technically independent, but de facto public academy (middle through high school). De facto because the students come with public tuition dollars, and sending towns have representatives on the board of trustees, which is very mindful of the need to “sell” the school’s budget and tuition rate to the towns — exactly the same as with the elected school board of the five-town supervisory union in which I live. While technically this is “school choice,” it’s not what is meant by the Ethan Allen Institute and the conservative movement; towns without their own high schools typically designate a couple of nearby schools, and even if they don’t, geography limits the options.

    Of course we have some truly private schools, and always will. There is nothing that prevents people who can afford it from choosing one or from starting one based on a particular vision (such as the Waldorf schools).

    We really don’t need any more choice than we already have, which has emerged from a practical need and desire for public education, rather than an ideology that wants to treat schools as private businesses that should compete with one another. That’s not what school is all about. And from my teaching experience, I can assert that as our school population declines for the foreseeable future, public and de facto public and private schools already are having to “compete” for students of sending towns where there are two or three options –forcing administrators away from attending to their schools, in order to go on the road and “sell” their school, and threatening successful programs as staff are increased or reduced from year to year due to shortfalls. Schools are about communities and relationships, what is best for children, not about efficiency and profit; competition is not a good model for sustainable education.

    • “–forcing administrators away from attending to their schools, in order to go on the road and “sell” their school, and threatening successful programs as staff are increased or reduced from year to year due to shortfalls.”

      What this sounds like to me is administrators expanding knowledge of and access to successful programs. If the programs are successful, and administrators can demonstrate that fact, more kids will learn about those programs and have the resources to participate in them. That seems to me both better for the kids and better for the teachers and administrators of those successful programs. Those administrators out there “selling” their schools are, in fact, actively building relationships with parents — a good thing — and through those relationships they are building strong, actively engaged communities.

    • Tim Smith

      If our school system is not broke than neither is our healthcare system. And we all know that is being totally revamped. What is wrong with school choice?? It exposes weakness in one school and amplifies the strength of another school. In the end that is GOOD for the students because changes can be made.

  • But we already have turned power over to the unelected. Read Act 153. The Superintendents hold authority over almost EVERYTHING your school board is voting on – it has turned into a rubber stamping process. Yet in this state we can’t fill superintendent vacancies with qualified persons, or qualified business managers. I’ve heard the number 20% vacancies at any point in time It is a perennial problem, and one that contributes to poor financial oversight and spending.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Families deserve choice. The Independent Schools seem to offer a much higher quality of education. Every family should have the right to the best public school possible.

    Some public schools are sub standard. Imagine having to send your 9 year-old son to school wearing a wire because of the abuse he was being subjected to by staff members.

  • Jamie Carter

    There definitely should be total school choice for students of all grades. The opposition to it doesn’t even make sense…

    School choice segregates students?? How, by giving them the choice to go to the same school as anyone else…

    School choice is bad for students as private schools are only interested in money ?? And yet private schools typically have higher performing students?

    The state should move to a voucher system that allows students to present that voucher to whatever school they choose to attend. The school budget should then be based on how many students they are enrolling.

    Competition is good, our current model breeds complacency.

    As for the comments about administrators having to then be away from the school selling it, well that’s exactly the point that school choice would fix. Anyone with a brain doesn’t send an admin to sell something. Ever go to a car dealership and have the owner come out to sell a car to you… no you get a sales person. If a school can’t figure out that they would need to hire a PR person, they shouldn’t be in the education business…