Commentary: Examining Equity In Our Public Schools

By Rob RoperRob Roper

Equity and access to educational resources has been a hot topic surrounding the rules (or changes thereto) governing independent schools that accept tax dollars through Vermont’s tuitioning system. Some argue that if a school takes state money it should accept any and all comers. But what about public schools?

There is a tremendous amount of inequity in what Vermont public schools offer from one district to the next. Some offer lots of AP courses, some offer none. Some offer a variety of foreign languages, others don’t. Some have football teams, marching bands, and drama clubs, but certainly not all.

It’s a myth that public schools have to accept everyone. They can and do refuse students with severe disabilities or behavioral issues who’s needs they determine they cannot meet. (In such cases the districts, ironically quite often, pay to send these students to independent schools).

Nor do students within a given public schools have equal access to resources. Public school students are not “lotteried” into honors courses, varsity sports, or, for example, an elite musical band. Faculty and administration make decisions about who is most likely to succeed in such programs and discriminate accordingly.

As Rep. David Sharpe (D-Bristol), who chairs the House Education Committee, recently said, “We have [public school] districts that spend $20,000 [per pupil] and districts that spend $10,000. It’s hard to argue that you have equity when you have that kind of variation throughout the state.” That’s very true.

So, if an independent school should be forced to accept any student who wants to attend from anywhere in the state (not just from within the district where the school is located, but from any tuitinoing town across Vermont), why shouldn’t the same standard apply to our public schools?

Rep. Vicki Strong (R-Albany) put forward a bill this year that would allow any public school student to transfer to any other public school if that student’s assigned school does not offer an academic course, sport, extracurricular activity, or service that the new school does.

For example, if a student is geographically assigned to Public School A, which does not offer AP calculus (or have a football team or a marching band, etc.), and that student wants the opportunity to participate in that program, he or she would have the right to transfer to Public School B, which does offer that program. School A would be obligated to let the student go, and School B would be obligated to accept the student unless it can demonstrate that it does not have the physical capacity to do so. The per-pupil dollar amount would follow the child.

Under this system every public school student in the state of Vermont would have the opportunity to access every publicly funded educational program in the state, regardless of the zip code in which they can afford to live. That’s fair!

What’s not fair is locking a child in an assigned public school that doesn’t offer the courses that child needs to succeed in the pursuit his or her dreams and ambitions. That a Vermont kid can be stuck in a school without access to programs he or she aspires to take when those programs do exist just down the road – too often in underutilized classrooms – is a tragedy. It’s also unnecessary.

Not all of our public schools need to – or even should – look and be the same. Not every student wants to take Mandarin Chinese, or play baseball, or star in a play. Those who don’t don’t need access t such programs. But those who do do! As such, all should have the opportunity to participate in all of the publicly funded educational opportunities that, in the end, we’re all paying for through the statewide property tax.

Rep. Strong’s legislation would allow for much greater equity and access to opportunity throughout our public school system, as well as for a much more efficient use of resources. It deserves to pass.

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

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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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