1-16-14 – Rob Roper’s Opening Remarks, Manchester School Choice Debate

The Ethan Allen Institute debated the Public Assets Institute in the second of three debates on the topic of the proper role of government in education. The following is EAI president Rob Roper’s opening statement. 

Manchester, VT – Public education is about creating an educated public.

Rob Roper (Left) and Daren Houck (RIght) debate for the Ethan Allen Institute

Rob Roper (Left) and Daren Houck (Right) debate for the Ethan Allen Institute

It’s a national commitment to make sure every individual citizen has the intellectual tools to succeed in the world and to maximize their potential. At its heart, it’s making sure everyone has a genuine opportunity to exercise their liberty and to realize their right to pursue happiness.

But we shouldn’t think of “public education” as a system. It’s a goal – an educated public. And there are many potential systems available to us to reach that goal. So, what is the proper role of government in reaching our goal to educate the public as effectively and efficiently as humanly possible?

Vermont is unique in the nation in that our publicly-funded education system has two distinct “branches” for lack of a better word. The most familiar one – the one we generally associate with the public school system is the one in which the various governments from local to state to federal combine to directly own and operate schools. And, the government assigns children to those schools based on their arbitrary geographic address.

The other publicly funded education system in Vermont serves 93 towns, and has existed for over 150 years. It has fed and cultivated Burr & Burton Academy, St. Johnsbury Academy, the Lyndon Institute, Thetford Academy , The Mountain School at Winhall, most recently the Village School in North Bennington. Dozens of diverse and vibrant independent schools throughout Vermont. This is our Town Tuitioning system. In this system, the role of government in education is to provide public dollars which are used to fund the tuition for each child, which then follows that child to any public or approved independent school that best fits the needs of that child.

So, we have the unique opportunity here in Vermont to examine – side by side – which of these publicly funded systems performs better for families, better for communities, better for taxpayers and, most importantly, better for our kids. The evidence strongly favors the Tuitioning Model.

In our first debate, the Ethan Allen Institute focused primarily on how tuitioning better serves to strengthen communities and democracy, and does an overall better job of educating the public, in most cases for fewer taxpayer dollars. Today I want to shift the focus slightly to the issues of poverty, equality and empowerment.

All wealthy children have school choice. If the assigned government school does not work for them, for whatever reason, their parents can simply pay to have little Johnny or Sally educated at the private school down the road, or even in another state. Or they can afford to move to a neighborhood with higher home prices, higher property taxes and better schools. In a system built around arbitrary geographic silos, however, the poorest kids don’t have those options. If the school you’re in doesn’t work for you, tough luck. In those cases, we’re not talking about a system of not public education because, those kids are not being educated. That’s a system of warehousing.

But, Vermont’s tuitioning system equalizes to a great extent the opportunities for rich and poor, because in tuitioning towns, the poorest child has pretty much the same choices and resources for pursuing their education as does wealthiest child. This is a profoundly moral issue.

Our colleagues on the other side of the table have made the opposite case. That the government run public school system is what’s necessary to help the most disadvantaged among us.

Consider this observation by Bill Storz, a special educator in the Northeast Kingdom with the Community High School of Vermont, which serves in the prison system, so these kids have serious disadvantages. “…choice,” he says,” is a powerful tool within that whole realm where you want to teach people how to make good decisions. Once people feel empowered to make good choices, they respond and rise to the occasion. When people don’t feel they have choice, they react against that in some way. So, I honestly think that the choice system allows people to feel empowered about their situation, and I think it logistically allows them to find matches. Last year we crunched some numbers on special education for example…. and we found that we have very low numbers on special education and I, anecdotally, attribute that to the fact that people are better able to match schools and children….”

Now contrast that to this official news release by the state of Vermont posted on November 26, 2013 regarding Vermont kids’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Then Secretary of Education, Armando Vilaseca is quoted, “I am particularly concerned that we still have not made major progress in closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty….” The release goes on to say, “Vermont students demonstrated significant achievement gaps based on family income…. The smallest gap was 14 percentage points in fourth grade mathematics, and the largest was 23 percentage points in fourth grade reading.”

DSC02921

The Park House Activity Room in Manchester. Packed.

So, at the very least we know the current government-run monopoly system is not working on its own for rich and poor alike. It’s not giving all of the public an equal shot at becoming educated.

I recently read, I Got Schooled, by M. Knight Shymalan, a Hollywood movie maker with a passion for education who traveled the country to see what schools were actually succeeding at closing the education gap between richer and poorer students, and, he noted in his concluding chapter, that they were pretty much all Charter Schools. Small schools where parents have a choice, and where teachers and leaders in the school building are empowered of offer different environments to different populations.

I’m not here to say here that government run schools are bad and independent schools are better. The critical factor is choice. Some children thrive in government schools. Some don’t. The critical factor – what’s better – is a system that empowers kids with the choice to find the right the school. We’ve done that in Vermont in 93 towns. I hope in the future we will do it in more. And leaders like Daren Houck can show us the way….

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Frenier January 17, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Great remarks, Rob. Your argument that choice is more democratic and better for the poor is very persuasive.

Reply

Gretchen Cotell January 17, 2014 at 6:17 pm

I question if any failing schools would exist if all Vermont families were able to make their own school choice.

Reply

Sue Conklin January 18, 2014 at 1:33 am

Excellent comment Gretchen!

Reply

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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.
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