Commentary & Video: Montpelier struggles to decide who our kids belong to

School Choice DS VideoBy Rob Roper (April 25, 2013)

MSNBC recently ran a highly controversial promo in which Melissa Harris-Perry, one of their show hosts, floated the idea that our kids don’t really belong to us, but rather to the community at large. “… [W]e have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities,” she said.

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This shocked and angered a lot of people, and rightly so. But Vermonters might be more shocked to know that this very idea is being debated in Montpelier today, and Ms. Harris-Perry has a lot of allies for her position in our legislature.

The issue is manifesting itself in the debate over school choice, both at the k-12 and pre-k levels. Ever since the Town of North Bennington voted to close its public elementary school and replace it with an independent school, giving all the students in their community full school choice, a kind of School Choice Derangement Syndrome has overcome a large faction in the State House. And, now that the bill that would give universal access to preschool for 3 and 4 year olds appears to have elements of a “choice” or “voucher” program, that derangement has shifted into high gear.

At the Vermont House Democrats’ weekly caucus meeting, Rep. David Sharpe (D-Bristol) spoke to the pending universal pre-k bill, “Many of the people in my communities, particularly in Starksboro and Monkton, work in Chittenden County… and, in the bill, it mandates that any parent who wishes to take their student out of [the local] preschool and take them at their convenience up to a Chittenden County preschool because that’s easier for them, the bill requires that the school system give them that voucher.”

That’s a good thing, no? Apart from the scheduling flexibility, it saves the parents time and gasoline. It allows the parents more time to interact with their child during the car ride. It allows the parents greater opportunities to participate in their child’s preschool because it is nearer to their workplace. In some cases, it is the deciding factor in being able to place a child in a preschool program at all. But, to Sharpe, these are reasons to oppose rather than support the concept. God forbid that his constituents be allowed to avail themselves of admittedly more convenient options for childcare. Why? Because the children don’t belong to the parents, they belong to the “community” – or the “system.”

Rep. Allison Clarkson (D-Woodstock) expressed a similar sentiment, expressing her belief that state policy should be aimed toward “funneling” children, like cattle, into the pubic school system. “I really have a very hard time supporting anything that doesn’t build community by having kids in the community at school in their own communities. And to finance kids going anywhere they want, and families taking them anywhere they want, is a real troublesome hurdle to me,” said Clarkson.

Forget for the moment that Clarkson sent her own kids to an elite prep school in Massachusetts far away from her own community school, but it is again that notion that the kids really don’t belong to the parents, they belong to the public school system.

One of the wackiest statements to come from all of this was uttered by the vice chairman of the Education Committee, Rep. Peter Peltz (D-Woodbury), who equated parents who take part in Vermont’s 150 year old school choice policy with Southern racial segregationists in the 1950s and 60s. “Those parents,” Peltz went on, “that want the best for their kids are giving up on our public school system and doing anything they can to create these independent, private schools.”

But these opponents of school choice have made the strongest arguments for it: It’s more convenient for parents and kids, and it is the system that parents who “want the best for their kids” (and what parents don’t?!) want.

Rep. Alice Miller voiced the real fear that those who believe children don’t really belong to their parents harbor. “How are you going to say to these parents [of preschoolers], if you have school choice now for three and four year olds, what are you going to say when they’re five, six and seven and they’re on their way to public school, in kindergarten or elementary school? Are you going to say, no? Now it doesn’t apply?”

This is the fear because these legislators know that once parents experience school choice, they will not want to go back or into a system that does not allow them to play an active role in deciding what educational environment best fits their needs and the needs of their children. At that point, the public school bureaucracy will have to adapt to a world where they the kids don’t belong to the system anymore. The kids will belong to their parents. Yikes!

        – Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute (ethanallen.org), he lives in Stowe. 

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