April 2, 2010

Alison Clarkson and School Choice in Vermont

According to reporting by School Choice Vermont, as the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday was reviewing H.782, a bill aiming to consolidate school districts, Representative Alison Clarkson of Woodstock (also representing Reading) "said that we really should be considering consolidation as an opportunity to 'capture' choice kids and bring them back into the system to boost enrollment". (Her recorded comments can be heard in this video from EdWatch Vermont.)

Clarkson's statement is wrong in many ways.

First, the predatory tone. Choice towns have decided to provide that opportunity, not out of malice for the public school system (particularly as most students stay in the public schools -- see the second point), but in the interests of what is best for their citizens. Their students, granted this freedom by the taxpayers of their towns, are not "escapees" to be "captured".

Second, it is short-sighted and ill-informed. Once these few children are forced back into the public school system (where they have already decided they are not well served so that many of them will choose home schooling), enrollment will continue to decline. So, that problem is not at all solved by eliminating choice. Especially as most students from choice towns go to public schools already. In my town's current 8th-grade class, only 3 students out of about 30 are going to private schools: one is going to an expensive boarding school, for which the town will pay only a fraction of the cost, i.e., the student would have gone there anyway; so only 2 students would be "captured", i.e., not given the opportunity of an alternative high school that better serves their needs.

Third, the elitism. Vermont has a unique system in which the students in about 70 towns (13% of the state's students; data from the Vt. Dept. of Education for fiscal year 2010) are able to choose any non-religious high school they want, even in another state, and if it is private, their town will pay up to the state's average public per-pupil spending. As noted in the second point, most students choose the nearest public high school or one that provides bus service to their town. Some choose another public high school that is especially strong in specific areas of interest. A few use the money to help them pay for an expensive private school they would have gone to anyway.

But Vermont's system has allowed the creation of a number of independent high schools that provide much-needed alternatives to the bigger-is-better and too often one-size-fits-all philosophy of the public system. An alternative is thus available to any student in a choice town, not just the children of the rich.

Clarkson, whose sons apparently go to The Groton School in Massachusetts, would deny such educational choice to those who can't afford it. She is simply saying that opportunities beyond the public school system should be available only to the rich.

Finally, the hypocrisy. It was also reported that Clarkson said that we have very good public schools and the legislature should protect them (from people thinking otherwise!). Why don't her sons go to Woodstock Union High School?

There is only harm implied in her comments, not the interests of the educational needs of the children of Vermont.

P.S.  Armando Vilaseca, Vermont's Commissioner of Education, who has expanded a directive to find savings in the school system into an attack against school choice, said last year on Vermont Public Radio that he had never heard of anyone moving to a specific town because of school choice. He is clearly unqualified to be in his position, since school choice is prominently touted in real estate ads and many people do indeed choose their town of residence for that reason. Listen to the comments in this highlights video from the April 6 hearing in Bennington (from Rob Roper of EdWatch Vermont).

P.P.S.  Vilaseca has also expressed his resentment of independent schools that are not required to provide special education or similar services, which he thinks give them an unfair advantage at the expense of the public schools. Academically, however, public schools are not put at a disadvantage, because such services are provided by dedicated staff so that it is not a burden to teachers or an adverse distraction to students. And economically, "tuitioned" students are not taking resources from the public schools for those services, because their parents/guardians are still paying the same school taxes as everyone else. They are still contributing as much as everyone else to support the non-tuitioned responsibilities of the public schools.

tags: human rights, Vermont