The Moral Imperative of School Choice

January 29, 2019

by Rob Roper

Note: These remarks were originally prepared for National School Choice Week, but the event was unfortunately snowed out in Vermont. 

We’re to celebrate National School Choice Week and all the gains that have been made across the nation – which have been substantial – allowing families to access the educational opportunities that they know to be best for their children. But, more importantly, at least from our perspective, is the chance to celebrate Vermont’s 150 year history of school choice, which I believe is the most comprehensive and dynamic in the nation – for the too few who have it.

With this in mind I want to commend that part of the Scott Administration’s proposal to expand school choice in Vermont to all families.

More than just a good policy, school choice is a moral imperative.

Our current system has consistently left behind our most vulnerable students – those from low income backgrounds and those with special needs.

In 2016, here’s what then Education Secretary Rebecca Holcomb said regarding poor, special needs, and secondary English speaking students in our public school system:

“Our children from more prosperous families continue to rank near the top nationally. Our most vulnerable youth- those living in poverty, with disabilities, from marginalized populations and who speak English as a second – continue to have test scores that are on average lower than our general population.”

Lamentable proclamations like this have been around for decades with no improvement. This is because arbitrarily drawn public school district lines are contributing greatly to the growing problem of wealth segregation and inequality in our communities. Wealthier parents tend to move into neighborhoods with good public schools, driving up housing prices and property taxes in the process, making access to higher quality school districts even more expensive.

The wealthy, of course, always have school choice. They can choose to buy property in the best school districts. They can afford the tuition necessary to escape an educational environment that isn’t working for them. Denying all students school choice doesn’t punish the wealthy, or take away their opportunities. It punishes the poor by denying them those same opportunities.

Let me be clear that we are not here to say that public schools are bad and independent schools are better. It’s a matter of finding the right fit for the child. Kids are different. For some, a small school might be best. For others, a large school. For others, a Waldorf or Montessori environment. For others, a traditional public school environment.

I have two kids. For my oldest, the local public school was a terrific learning environment. Great teachers, a fantastic peer group. It was the perfect learning environment for her. For my youngest, however, it wasn’t the best environment. This had nothing to do with the teachers or the curriculum. They were the same as they were for my daughter. It just wasn’t the right fit for him, so we sent him to an independent school. The first school we chose didn’t work out, so we chose another. This has been an incredible, enriching experience for him.

Now, we don’t have school choice in my town, so we had to pay the tuition to get my son into the right learning environment for him. This was possible only because my family could afford it. But for other kids in his class in the same situation, this might not be an option. This isn’t fair. But we don’t make the system fair… just… practical…. or successful by denying kids opportunities, we make it fair by empowering all students with the resources to access a more diverse menu of opportunities.

Forcing kids into school environments that don’t fit their individual educational needs isn’t fair to the kids or the school. The dynamic sets both up for failure. That is not what we want for our education system.

School choice breaks down the barriers of arbitrary school district lines – these glass walls defined by zip codes – by empowering all parents with the resources they need to either find the right school for their children, or, in some cases, like with many of the cases here in the room today, start their own schools if the right school can’t be found.

This is right. This is just. And this works!

Thank you all for coming today and sharing your inspirational stories. Your school choice is something special. Appreciate it. Protect it. And most importantly, do your best to make sure every child in our state has the chance to experience and benefit from it as you have. It’s not only the practical thing to do, it is the moral thing to do.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. 

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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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