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Vermonters for Better Education
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Goal #1: School Choice 
through charter schools, vouchers, open enrollment

where we could be | where we are | answering the critics
Parents should be allowed to choose schools for their children.  It’s a simple concept protected by the U.S. Supreme Court.  No state can force children to go to public schools.  Yet currently, only those who can afford to pay the financial penalties associated with choice — moving to a different district or paying tuition — can afford to choose.  In short, only the wealthy can choose.

Ironically, many people who oppose school choice policies choose private schools for their own children, including politicians who block school choice legislation and members of the teachers unions who fight choice programs in court and in legislatures.

The two questions that are often raised about school choice programs are legitimate ones to consider:

Solid research shows that the answer to both these questions is “yes.”

The Common Good Benefit

Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby is an economist whose well-respected peer-reviewed work on the effects of competition among public schools shows:

    She also studied whether private schools provide competition for public ones, and found: There is also a growing body of anecdotal evidence that suggests school choice programs benefit public schools and the common good through the introduction of the pressures and incentives of competition.

A prominent Vermont educator had this to say about the effects of competition on schools:

“I believe that competition for students in the public marketplace is a positive and healthy phenomenon that serves to improve the quality of our schools.”  – David Wolk, former superintendent of Rutland schools, now Commissioner of Education for Vermont. (Rutland Herald
article, 9/26/96)
Commissioner Wolk  believes that the Rutland area high schools “are of higher caliber at least in part due to the competition for students from tuition-paying towns…”

Does school choice benefit the common good?  Yes.

The Individual Good

On the “individual good” level, the research of Harvard professor Paul Peterson shows gains in academic achievement among students in voucher programs – both publicly- and privately-funded.   This research has been widely publicized and is available on the internet.  Dr. Peterson is meticulous in comparing apples to apples. Of particular note is his “Evaluation of the New York School Choice Scholarship Program: The First Year.”  This study showed that:

This particular study is useful because it is one of the first opportunities researchers have had to estimate the impacts of a choice pilot program that had the following characteristics: Peterson’s research on Milwaukee and Cleveland have shown similar results with modest to significant gains in academic achievement and always high levels of parental satisfaction. Research on charter schools have shown similar benefits.

Critics will argue, however, that the research shows mixed results.  This is because of the difficulty in determining true control groups, among other things. What is not in doubt, and is agreed to by critics, is the high level of parental satisfaction with school choice programs.  Study after study shows that parental satisfaction is extremely high among parents who can choose schools for their children.  Since parents are the best judges of what’s best for their kids, this is a significant indicator of quality.

Does school choice benefit the individual good?  Yes.

Beyond the research

The public education system as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomena.  It has only been since the late 1800s that the system started to become entrenched.  Independent schools, in fact, have been around much longer.

The system sprang up for many reasons, but a dominant one was the desire of fearful nativists to make immigrant children (mostly Roman Catholics) fit into a homogenous Protestant culture. Nativist sentiments led to the passage of many school laws that sought to restrict parents’ choices and force them to send their children to the new common schools. There was no respect for diversity or pluralism.

Public education should not be merely what goes on within the walls of a publicly-governed school. Public education is really the public’s responsibility to educate all children wherever their needs are best met.

Where We Could Be — School Choice Possibilities

Charter school: A public school that agrees to meet certain performance standards in exchange for exemptions from public school regulations other than those governing health, safety, and civil rights. Funded by the public, usually on a per-pupil basis, these schools can accept students from outside their district.  The most effective charter school laws are those that allow schools the most freedom.  Arizona and Michigan have the best charter school laws in the U.S. 

Education savings accounts: Accounts, similar to individual retirement accounts (IRAs), in which individuals save a certain amount of post-tax dollars each year for the educational benefit of a student. 

Full choice: Choice that includes public, private, and religious schools. 

Inter-district choice: Choice that allows students to cross district lines. 

Intra-district choice: Open enrollment among schools within a particular district. Also known as transfers. 

Magnet schools: Public schools that offer specialized programs. 

Open enrollment: System that allows parents to choose a public school  anywhere in the state. 

Post-secondary enrollment options: Choice of enrollment that allows high school students (usually juniors or seniors) to enroll in courses at state universities or community colleges at government expense and receive high school and college credits for those courses. 

Private voucher programs: Programs supported by individuals, businesses, and other groups that give vouchers directly to low-income children. 

Public school choice: Choice only among public schools. 

Tax credits and/or deductions: Funding method that facilitates choice by granting parents a credit or deduction against income or property taxes for money they spend on private school tuition, books, or other expenses. 

Tuitioning town: A town that does not have a public school and allows funds to follow students to the public or independent school of choice. Maine and Vermont have tuitioning towns. 

Vouchers: Public funds for tuition or fees at public or private educational institutions of parents’ choice.

Where We Could Be — What Other States Are Doing
  • 18 states: public school choice statewide 
  • 19 states: public school choice limited to some or all districts 
  • 26 states: medium to strong charter school laws 
  • 11 states: weak charter school laws 
  •   2 cities (Cleveland, Milwaukee): publicly funded voucher programs 
  •   2 states (Vermont, Maine) with tuitioning town systems 
  •   1 state (Florida) with publicly funded full school choice 
  •   4 states (Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona) with education tax deductions or credits 
(Source: Heritage Foundation “School Choice 2000 Annual Report”) 

Where We Are — A Snapshot of School Choice in Vermont 

Current Programs

Tuitioning Towns: Approximately 90 Vermont towns have no public schools. Since 1869, students in these towns have been allowed to choose public or private (nonreligious) schools using public per pupil funding. 

Public school choice:  The legislature just passed a very limited public high school school choice bill that only allows a handful of students per school to choose public high schools.  It also allows schools to opt out of the arrangement if they can prove choice will damage them.  No money is transferred between schools. 

Private Voucher Program:  In 1998, Vermont philanthropists joined together to found Vermont Student Opportunity Scholarships (VTSOS).  The program grants scholarships covering 50 percent of tuition costs up to $2,000 to low-income students whose parents want to choose a public or private school. 

Proposed Programs

Charter schools:  Legislation has been introduced for ten years but never passed. In 1999, Rep. Frank Mazur (S. Burlington) sponsored an amendment to the public school choice bill that would have mandated a study of charter schools for Vermont. It was defeated in a 67-68 vote. 

Tuition tax credits:  Tax credits for homeschoolers and others have been proposed in the past but never passed by the legislature. 

Full School Choice or vouchers:  For several years, full school choice programs have been proposed as amendments or bills.  This year an amendment to the public school choice bill was introduced by Rep. Michael Quaid (Williston) that would have allowed parents to use a voucher-like mechanism to pay for education even at religious schools as long as the money went only for nonsectarian segments of the curriculum. The amendment failed.   In 1996, Rutland City voters approved a voucher program that requires legislative approval. The legislature has refused to act on this proposal. 

Education Freedom Districts:  This program, offered by Rep. Howard Crawford (Burke), would allow voters of a local school district to opt out of the state-controlled educational system and adopt a wide range of educational reforms. 

School Choice — Answering the Critics

Below is a summary of critics’ arguments against school choice and the logical rebuttals.

Transportation or the “they can’t get there, so why bother” argument: School choice won’t work unless massive transportation programs are implemented along with the choice programs.  Poor people can’t get to the schools of their choice.

This argument ignores current reality, insults poor people, and assumes that choice proponents don’t
want to include transportation programs in choice policies.

The fact is that many of Vermont’s tuitioning towns do not provide transportation for students yet kids get to the schools they need.  In addition, some public school districts don’t provide transportation for every student in the district.

This argument is the same as saying: we know you can’t or won’t get your child to school without our help, so we won’t let you choose a school until we’re sure we can provide the transportation for you. Transportation challenges shouldn’t be used to nail shut the door to school choice options.

The “community center” argument: Public schools are the centers of our communities.  Therefore,
school choice would undermine a town’s sense of community.

It’s important to remember that most people in a town do not have children in school. They find the center of their communities in many different places — in churches, synagogues, town halls, libraries, community and senior centers, parks, and downtown districts.

Are schools important?  You bet.  But all schools are important, not just public ones.  And public schools don’t hold a monopoly on the “center of community life.”  For the thousands of people who never attended a public school or sent their children to one, this argument is also offensive.

The “creaming argument”:  School choice will leave behind the poor and most difficult to educate, while good students will be “creamed” into the best schools.

This argument assumes once again that the poor will not be able to tell if their kids are in a bad school or if there is a more appropriate school available.  It also assumes that the “better students” will flock to the exits if given the chance, a sad commentary on what school choice critics really think about our public schools.

As Harvard Economist Caroline Minter Hoxby has illustrated in her research, competition among schools does not increase “creaming.”  In addition, many private schools and charter schools target difficult populations and at-risk students. Minnesota’s school choice laws are so effective in helping poor and at-risk students that representatives from the state’s Urban League and Children’s Defense Fund have urged legislators not to cut back these valuable programs. A majority of the parents participating in the Milwaukee school choice program are single parents and many are unemployed.

The “creaming argument” more aptly applies to the current no-choice regime.  Without publicly-funded school choice programs, only the wealthy can choose, “creaming” their students from a school while other, less fortunate students are left behind. The “special needs students will be left behind” argument.

This argument directly flies in the face of current reality.  In Vermont’s tuitioning towns, special needs students are allowed to choose and their needs are met in private schools as well as in public ones. And, even in nontuitioning towns, students with special needs can be sent, at public expense, to private schools that cater to the students’ very specific challenges. Why would this change?

The “selective admissions” argument:  Private schools regularly administer entrance tests to screen out undesirable students but public schools have to take everybody.  Private schools  have a bad record at integration.

Once again, this argument flies in the face of reality.  Perhaps exclusive prep schools administer entrance tests, but the vast majority of private schools do not.  Those that participate in choice programs are usually precluded from doing so by the choice laws.

And, private schools in recent years have a much better record at racial integration and harmony than public ones.  According to a study by University of Houston researcher Jay Greene, US Department of Education statistics show that private school classrooms are more racially integrated and do a better job at fostering racial tolerance than public school ones.

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