Commentary: Every Student Deserves The Opportunity I Had (January, 2017)

by Rob RoperRob Roper

When I was in second grade, my parents moved our family from Virginia to Connecticut because Dad took a job in New York City. They chose the town of Riverside to live in based largely on the quality of the public school system. We were lucky to be able to afford to live there. It had some of the best schools the country at the time, and probably still does. But the local public school didn’t work for me. Just didn’t click.

I was the stereotypical bright kid who didn’t apply himself and was able to hide in classrooms filled with twenty-five to thirty students. As a small, shy child with a mild Southern accent who reflexively said “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” to the delight of adults and the seething irritation of my new classmates, I didn’t really fit in with my peers.

We stuck with the public school for three years, but…. It wasn’t the teachers. They were fine and I liked them. My younger sister was thriving three grades below me and would throughout her career, as were most of the kids in the school as far as I know. Riverside Elementary just wasn’t the right fit for me academically or socially.

So, when middle school came around my parents chose to send me to a private school across town with smaller class sizes, more structure, and a more disciplined culture. I had to wear a jacket and tie every day. My “yes sirs” and “yes ma’ams” were an asset.

This school turned out to be a much better fit for me, especially with the wisdom of hindsight.

I recall early in the year when my Latin teacher, Mr. Rogers, came up to me in study hall where I was not engaged in Latin but rather a game of table soccer with a folded paper ball. My grade in Latin did not warrant such use of time.

Mr. Rogers (who shared no similarities with the children’s TV personality) pulled up a chair across from me, stuck his nose about ten inches from mine, and through a fiery red beard with a rising complexion to match said slowly and quietly in such a way as to scare the living daylights out of me, “You better get your a– in gear and start performing up to your potential in my class.” He may have said more, but that is all I heard or needed to hear.

Though I’m not sure every twelve-year-old would respond positively to this tactic, it worked on me. Especially when, after I aced the next few quizzes, he sought me out again in the study hall to compliment and encourage me. I ended up with a 90+ average in Latin that year.

I could not hide in a class of seven kids, and I found a teacher who cared passionately about my success. There were several others like him: Mr. Brody in English, Mr. Levendowsky in history, Mr. Arden and Mrs. Dunn in science. These people made a learning environment that was the right place – the best choice — for me, and I am grateful. And lucky. My family was able to exercise this choice only because we could (with a little help from my grandmother) afford it.

This is why I am and have always been such a fervent advocate for publicly funded school choice. Every kid should have the opportunity I had to find a place where he or she is best suited to learn — regardless of income.

What if my parents didn’t have the resources to pay for a different school for me? I’d have been stuck in a school system for another six years where I was not happy and not learning – at great expense to the taxpayer. What a waste of resources on both sides of the equation!

Vermont has solved this issue brilliantly in our 90-some tuitioning towns where every child, regardless of income, is allowed to choose the best public or approved independent school that fits his or her needs with $14,000 or more following the child. This can open up a world of opportunities, especially for lower income students who would otherwise have little to no chance of escaping an unproductive learning environment. All Vermont kids should have this opportunity.

It’s National School Choice Week. Vermonters should be proud of our 150-year-old history of pioneering the oldest, most comprehensive and dynamic school choice system in the nation. Now we should be looking for ways to expand its opportunities to all Vermont children. There are plenty of them out there who are smarter and more deserving than I for such an opportunity. Let’s make sure they get it.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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