Vermonters for Better Education
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What is school choice?
The term “school choice” applies to any program that takes the financial sting out of choosing a school. Currently, all parents are allowed to choose schools for their children, but only those with financial means can exercise that choice. School choice programs could include charter schools, magnet schools, public school choice (or “open enrollment” programs), and vouchers that can be used at independent schools as well as public schools.
Why is school choice a good thing? How would it benefit students?
All children are different with different needs and different talents. School choice programs allow parents to seek out the best and most appropriate educational opportunities for their children without financial penalty.
School choice can also benefit all schools by introducing the pressures and incentives of the marketplace into the education arena. Studies have shown this to be the case where educational choices are more prevalent.
But why should Vermont try this newfangled approach?
Choice is not new in Vermont. For more than a century, Vermont and Maine have both operated what amount to pure voucher programs in their tuition towns. We have experience with choice and we know it works.
In addition, for the past several years, the state has been implementing a public high school choice program of very limited scope. This law – Act 150 – only allows about a handful of students from each public high school to choose another public high school if that school has made a collaborative agreement with the student’s own school. Under Act 150 no money follows the student.
Shouldn’t we study the effects of Act 150 before expanding choices to other students?
Act 150 requires the Vermont Department of Education to make annual reports on data gathered from schools. However, because the program is so restrictive, it is difficult to gather enough data to draw any sweeping conclusions from the implementation of the law. In addition, the Department has not corrected problems that have occurred in how some schools implemented the law and gathered data, making the Department’s reports difficult to use in any substantive way.
Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that one of the driving forces behind the requirement for studies of Act 150 was to ensure that the law was not causing problems. Even the limited data show that implementing the law has not caused problems.
The only way to get reliable data on a Vermont school choice program is to expand the number of students who can choose, not do another study of Act 150.
Won’t schools be hurt by a school choice program even if only a small number of students leave?
All schools – big and small – already deal with enrollment fluctuations caused by population shifts and other factors. Below are some examples of enrollment figures for selected schools under our current system:
97-98 98-99 99-00 00-01
Calais Elem. 141 151 140 128
Black River 275 293 312 290
Readsboro Elem. 107 104 99 92
Harwood 722 615 607 619
Bennington Elem. 314 318 287 269
Winooski H.S. 419 400 387 417
Spaulding H.S. 1,025 1,038 1,033 961
Woodstock Elem. 276 255 226 204
IIt is rare and unlikely that any school would lose a substantial percentage of its captive population through a choice program. If a large shift does occur, however, the school’s community will have uncovered a valuable piece of information – that the school is not meeting the needs of its students and needs to be reformed quickly before another generation of students is enrolled.
If large shifts don’t occur in school choice programs, then what’s the point?
Even if only a few students change schools, the other students are still choosing to remain. The fact that all students, and not just the wealthy, can choose changes the dynamic between parent and school and makes the parent a more powerful force in directing the education of his/her children.
Shouldn’t we be working to improve public schools instead of diverting money into programs that could potentially weaken them?
School choice programs strengthen schools. They do not weaken them. Peer-reviewed research by Harvard economist Caroline Minter-Hoxby has shown that in areas where there is more choice, school productivity – increased quality with no increase in cost – goes up
Doesn’t school choice just create winners and losers, and shouldn’t we be working to make all our schools and students winners?
School choice allows losers to become winners. Not every school is right for every child. Several prominent champions of public schools here in Vermont and elsewhere have sent their own children to private schools because those were the schools that best met the needs of their kids. A local public school can be superlative and still not be right for every child in that community. Unfortunately, only those of financial means can now afford to choose. Choice programs would allow the “losers” under the current system to “win” the education most appropriate for them.
Poor children won’t be able to access schools without transportation, so won’t only the rich be able to choose?
It is impossible to design a transportation system for a choice program before it’s implemented. But we can take a look at how tuition towns deal with transportation issues, and see that they use a variety of creative approaches ranging from reimbursing parents to sponsoring buses. In addition, many private schools provide bus service. Some private schools even join together to provide a bus route that serves their students and those of other schools.
Saying we shouldn’t have school choice because we don’t have transportation challenges worked out is truly putting the cart before the horse. Let’s implement choice and work out the transportation issues together.
Public schools are accountable to the public. Under choice programs, how would private schools be accountable to taxpayers?
Taxpayers fund education programs in order to produce educated citizens. Currently, some public schools are failing at that mission while private schools are succeeding. Even so, the state department of education has an approval system for private schools that holds these schools accountable for the education they are providing.
Don’t most private schools screen the worst kids out?
No, most private schools, especially religious ones, have a commitment to access as well as achievement. If private schools administer entrance tests, it is often done for placement purposes, not to keep kids out.
Many public schools are the centers of their communities. Won’t school choice destroy that?
Community life centers around town halls, libraries, churches, synagogues, schools and even markets. Rarely can a single institution claim a monopoly on the title “center of the community.” In fact, when only about a third of all residents have their children in school at any given time, many other key public institutions – such as town halls on Town Meeting Day – justifiably lay claim to that title.
In addition, our children’s future should not be held hostage to an ephemeral idea such as “community center.”
Public schools are what make this country great. They’re the foundation of democracy where we learn common values. Won’t school choice undermine that?
Well-educated citizens with a thorough understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are what make up the foundation of our democracy. Nearly half of Vermont’s current state Senators were educated in private schools and they obviously understand democracy. It is not where you are educated, but how you are educated that prepares you for your role in democracy.According to U.S. Department of Education data, private schools in the U.S. have been doing a better job of instilling democratic values and racial tolerance than many public schools. In fact, most private schools in America are more racially integrated than public ones.
Won’t only the best students choose, leaving behind the rest?
No, under our current system, only the wealthiest students can choose. Under a choice program, we give all children – rich and poor – a chance at the schools that are best for them.
In fact, Vermont’s own tuition town system proves that choice provides opportunities for less affluent children to choose private academies that would otherwise only be accessible to the wealthy in their communities. The tuition town system also leads to more affluent children attending school with the less affluent. Such is the case at Rutland High school where several of the county’s most affluent towns send the lion’s share of their students to the city high school where the captive population is less affluent.
But isn’t the research on school choice mixed, showing it doesn’t really improve students or schools?
All education research can be said to be "mixed." But, unlike other education reforms, school choice has been tested using the "gold standard" of research techniques – random-assignment studies. Five random-assignment studies (where children are assigned to the choice programs randomly through lottery) show positive improvements in academic achievement among choice students. Random-assignment studies, by the way, are what we use to test every drug that goes into our bodies.
The best research on school choice, however, is probably the individual research each parent does when selecting a school. Studies show overwhelming parental satisfaction with school choice programs.
If we allow tax dollars to go to private schools, won’t that lead to the state subsidizing strange new schools – such as schools for witches?
If there was a market for those schools, we’d see them already because of our tuition town system.
Isn’t any school choice program that includes religious schools unconstitutional?
If that were so, using the GI Bill at Notre Dame would be unconstitutional, or using Pell grants at Loyola University would be unconstitutional The United States Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers to religious schools are constitutional.
In Vermont, however, our Supreme Court has ruled that the state constitution is more restrictive than the federal one on issues regarding church and state. Litigation to challenge this is underway.
Isn’t it true that most people support public schools and not choice programs?
A Vermont Public Radio poll two years ago showed that 55 percent of respondents favored using public funds for choice programs that included even religious schools. Just as importantly, private school enrollment has been on the rise in Vermont for the last three years, a clear indication that education consumers want diversity in our state.
Don’t our schools really need more resources, not untested programs like vouchers and choice?
Choice is certainly not untested in Vermont, where it has existed for more than 130 years. And the tuition town system commits the resources to where they are used the best – to the benefit of each individual child, not just to institutions. School choice redefines public education. It is no longer merely what goes on within the walls of a public school. It is the public’s responsibility to educate all children.
Haven’t voters voted against voucher initiatives at the polls?
It’s true that big voucher initiatives in California and elsewhere have been defeated at the polls. But here in Vermont, vouchers were approved by voters in Rutland City in 1996. And opinion polls show consistent support for choice.
Isn’t it true that only extreme right-wing conservatives support choice as a way to undermine our public schools?
Only if you define “right wing” to include such groups as the Democratic Leadership Council, Milwaukee’s Democratic Mayor John Norquist, and Democratic congressmen such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sen. Robert Kerrey, and former Rep. Floyd Flake. Outside of Vermont, school choice is gaining wide bipartisan support. It is especially popular among minority and disadvantaged populations, hardly groups one could characterize as “right wing.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(Congressional Record, September 30, 1997 – concerning a Washington, DC voucher program)
"The true choice here is between preserving the status quo at all costs, which is slamming a door in the face of the parents and children who want to do better, and doing what is necessary to put those children first. In other words, asking whether the status quo of the public education orthodoxy, which is letting down so many children, is so important that we are willing to sacrifice the hopes and aspirations of thousands of children for the sake of a process, not for the sake of the children."
Washington Post editorial, March 1, 2002:
"Nobody doubts that public schools in many communities are failing their children. No one doubts, either, that wealthier families have an escape valve: They can pay for private schools or move to communities with better public schools. It's the poor who get stuck in systems that too often prepare the next generation only for more poverty. In the face of this longstanding and unacceptable inequity, we don't have much patience with those who would block creative experimentation in a search for solutions."
The Democratic Leadership
(from "New Democrats’ Ten Key Reforms for Revitalizing American Education"):
"Provide Choice with Choices. Our public education system is still too monopolistic. In too many cases, it offers a 'one-size-fits-hardly-anyone' model that strangles excellence and innovation. We must offer parents a plethora of choices about what types of public schools their children may attend. Giving them the freedom to make those choices unleashes the power of market competition where it is needed most.
For nearly two decades, blue ribbon commissions have produced volume after volume of recommendations on how to improve public schools. However, the guardians of the status quo - members of the education establishment - have had little incentive to change. We need a public school system where the choice for failing schools is simple: Change or perish.
"After ten years and thousands of successful models, it is time to declare that charter schools work. These flexibly organized schools - which receive relief from red tape in exchange for results - have become oases of innovation in a larger desert of monopolistic and cookie-cutter schools. The time has come to bring life to the rest of the desert - by introducing the same forces of choice and competition to every public school in America.
"We should rid ourselves of the rigid notion that public schools are defined by who owns and operates them. In the 21st century, a public school should be any school that is of the people (accountable to public authorities for its results), by the people (paid for by the public), and for the people (open to the public and geared toward public purposes). "The school system of the future should be a network of accountable schools of all shapes, sizes, and styles with their own decision-making authority - each of which competes against the others for its students."
Senator Joseph R. Biden,
(Congressional Record, September 30, 1997 – concerning a Washington, DC voucher program)
"I have come to the belief that the constitutional issues involved [with school choice] are not as clear cut as opponents have argued. While lower courts have ruled that vouchers used in private religious schools violate the first amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion, the Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the question. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that State tuition tax credits for private religious school tuition are perfectly constitutional, and the Supreme Court has ruled that Pell grants--vouchers for college students--can be used in private religious colleges without violating the Constitution. . . . Even some liberal constitutional scholars have noted that vouchers to parents and children may be constitutional.
"Even if vouchers were to take money away from the public schools--and I should point out that not all voucher proposals do--that does not in and of itself mean that public schools will be harmed."
U.S. Secretary of Education
February 20, 2002, on the occasion of oral argument of the Cleveland voucher case before the Supreme Court. Paige, an African-American, is the former Superintendent of Houston Public Schools:
"Throughout America, far too many children are trapped in failing schools… These children need and deserve access to a quality education, and their parents should be empowered to help them achieve their dreams. That’s precisely the focus of this case. Those who oppose empowering parents to select the best school for their children argue that school choice programs would somehow hurt the system of public education. I reject this argument. As a nation, we must focus squarely on the needs of children and parents. If I have to choose between protecting the system and educating the children, I’ll choose the children every time."