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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