But when it comes to progressive education reform, Vermont is in the dark ages.
Today the Vermont House passed a bogus "school choice" bill that offers essentially no school choice and was, for all intents and purposes, designed by the Vermont-NEA to protect the union's monopoly in public education (more on that here).
Why even bother to pass a bill that will allow just six students per high school to choose another public high school pre-selected by their school district? The only logical answer is because Vermonters favor real school choice by a wide margin, and it's an election year.
Meanwhile, across the rest of the nation an exciting revolution in public education is taking place. Over the past ten years, bipartisan majorities in all but a handful of states have enacted legislation designed to encourage competition among public schools and provide more choice for parents --and all within the public school system. Innovations include magnet schools, schools within schools, work-site schools, and most significantly, the creation of public charter schools.
Public Charter Schools
What are charter schools? Perhaps because our state government has refused to allow them, many Vermonters have no clue. In any case, charter schools are tuition-free alternative public schools. They can be started by parents, educators, or communities that 'charter' (contract) with and agree to guidelines established by the state. Like other public schools, they receive a per-student block grant from the state. They must be open to all students regardless of background or ability. They also must set and meet strong standards for academic accountability as measured by the same assessments used by other public schools in the state.
The advantages of operating a charter school include a considerable degree of freedom from state regulations bearing on curriculum design, course requirements, days and hours of operation, staff qualifications, and many other areas. Charter schools can be designed to accommodate greater parental participation, higher academic standards, character education, an arts-oriented or back-to-basics curriculum, and other features valued by participating families. Charter schools can hire college professors and retired scientists to teach courses, and invite community professionals in for weeks or months to teach topical seminars.
In return for all this freedom, charter schools are held more accountable for student performance. A school's charter can be revoked and the school closed down if it fails to meet the goals set forth in its charter or the requirements imposed by the state. And since families participate in charter schools by choice, a poor charter school will quickly fail for lack of students.
It's important to understand that charter schools are nonsectarian public schools. They do not entail public funds for private schools, vouchers, or other arrangements that critics suggest might weaken the public school system. But charter schools do provide choice, empower parents, and are fully accountable to the public for producing results. They also create healthy competition among schools, and because they foster innovation, charter schools can inspire improvement throughout our public school system.
In a statement issued in April, President Clinton said, "Providing our children the high-quality education they need to succeed is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation, and helping communities establish public charter schools is one of the best ways we can meet that challenge."
When Clinton took office in 1992, there was just one charter school in the United States. At the start of the 1999-2000 school year there were more than 1,700 charter schools serving 250,000 students nationwide --and 7 out of ten of those schools had waiting lists.
Since 1991, 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signed charter school legislation into law (AK, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, KS, LA, MA, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, NH, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, PR, RI, SC, TX, UT, VA, WI, WY). Charter school legislation in several other states is expected to be signed into law within the year.
Federal support for charter schools is growing as well. Since 1994, the Federal Government has invested almost $400 million to establish and expand public charter schools, including $100 million just last year. Clinton's FY 2001 budget proposal includes $175 million for the U.S. Department of Education's public charter schools program next year.
Federal support is likely to continue after the November election. Presidential hopeful George Bush has set aside $3 billion of his proposed budget to support the further development of charter schools. Al Gore also has expressed strong support for charter schools, though he has not committed to specific plans to nurture them.
Parental satisfaction is sustaining the momentum of the charter school movement as well. Surveys find that 65% of the parents of charter school students consider their public charter school to be superior to their former public school (just 6% rated them worse). An impressive 87% report that their child's charter school experience has led to significantly improved academic performance.
Charter Schools in Vermont?
Vermont is one of just 14 states that have not yet passed some form of charter school legislation. Senate bills introduced in 1997 and 1999 (S.91 and S.59) would have authorized the state board of education to grant charter school status to just ten schools. But the bills were ignored by a Senate committee whose idea of education reform is a state-controlled, soviet-style bureaucracy under Act 60.
Last year, House bill H.368 proposed similar legislation with a ten school limit. But this bill too was ignored, this time by a House Education Committee that apparently chooses to ignore the plethora of research showing that charter schools deliver higher academic achievement at lower cost.
Then during consideration of the so-called school choice bill this week, legislators actually rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Frank Mazur that simply would have authorized a summer study group to evaluate the public charter school movement and report back to the legislature in January. Obviously, the majority in our current legislature has no interest in meaningful education reform.
And herein lies the danger. Will this same legislature soon be compelled to draft Vermont's first charter school law? And if so, will they draft a bogus charter school bill that serves only the entrenched education bureaucracy? Or will they act in the spirit of innovation and restore Vermont to the proud ranks of the national trendsetters?
For more information on charter schools visit http://www.uscharterschools.org