Vermonters for Better Education
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Testimony of Elizabeth L. Sternberg
Executive Director Vermonters for Better Education
House Education Committee
April 19, 2000
Vermonters for Better Education is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that formed in the fall of 1999. Our mission is to enlist parents and the public at large in achieving quality educational opportunities for all the children of Vermont. We do this by monitoring the state of education in Vermont, promoting the value of educational freedoms for all parents, and giving parents the evaluative tools with which to identify excellence.
I myself have been active in the school choice movement in Vermont for four years.
What should the legislature look at when considering school choice? The two questions that are often raised about school choice are legitimate ones for you to consider:
Solid research shows that the answer to these questions is "yes" in both cases. I won't go through with you today the details of all the research. It's available to you, however, either through web sites or from the researchers themselves.
Caroline Minter Hoxby, for example, 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:
For a more detailed explanation of her work, I strongly suggest you listen to Vermont economist Art Woolf who is familiar with Caroline Minter Hoxby's research, thinks highly of it, and has testified to its validity before the Senate Education Committee.
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.
But you don't need to take my word for it, or Hoxby's word, or Art Woolf's or even Howard Fuller's. 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, 9/26/96)
David went on to say 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.
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 at http://data.fas.harvard.edu/PEPG. 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.
Does school choice benefit the individual good? Yes.
By the way, research that does not contain information on academic achievement is missing a significant piece of the school choice picture. After all, what is the goal of schooling?
Beyond the research, however, is the history. 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 as we know it has been entrenched. Independent schools, in fact, have been around much longer.
If you are familiar with the history of public education, then you cannot help but be amused by claims that it is only "right wing conservatives" who support school choice. It was precisely that group of people - right wing conservatives - who championed the public school system in the 1800s. Their motivations were often distasteful. They were often fearful nativists who wanted to use the schools to blanche what they considered to be threatening papist views out of immigrant Catholic children. They wanted to use the public schools to make children fit into a homogenous Protestant culture. There was no respect for diversity or multiculturalism or even the individual needs of the child.
To give you an idea of just how "right wing" was the support for public schools, one need look no further than the Oregon school law of 1922 which made it illegal to send your child to a private school. Among those who campaigned for this law were the Ku Klux Klan.
So when I hear people referring to school choice as an "experiment," I like to remind them that in reality our current system is the experiment, and school choice is merely a correction to what went wrong when archconservatives guided its formation.
In conclusion, educational resources should not be determined by "the mere fortuity of a child's residence." 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.