12-16-13 — Roper: Opening Remarks from School Choice Debate

On Friday, December 13, 2013, the Ethan Allen Institute and the Public Assets Institute engaged in the first of three debates on the topic of the proper role of government in education. The following are the opening remarks of EAI president, Rob Roper… 

Vermont is unique in the nation in that our publicly-funded education system comes in two varieties. The most familiar one – the one we generally associate with the public school system – is the one in which the various governments – local state and federal — directly operate schools and assign children to those schools based on their residences.

The other publicly funded education system in Vermont exists for 93 towns, and has existed for 150 years. It has nourished St. Johnsbury Academy, the Lyndon Institute, Burr & Burton Academy, and dozens of other diverse and vibrant independent schools throughout Vermont. This is our independent Town Academy/Town Tuitioning system.

In this system, the role of government in education is to provide public dollars, which are used to fund the tuition for each child, which then follows that child to any public or approved non-sectarian independent school that best fits the needs of that child.

So, we have the unique opportunity here in Vermont to compare – side by side – which of these publicly funded systems performs better for families, for communities, for taxpayers and, most importantly, for our kids. The evidence strongly favors the Tuitioning Model.

Our colleague across the table, Bill Mathis said: “When we first developed schools in this nation it was for civic virtue. To build a community…. We’re after a better society in which everybody has an equal opportunity, and we need to pursue the democratic ends, not the test-based econometric ends.” We couldn’t agree more, except to say that we can do both. We can have better academic outcomes and better civic outcomes — stronger community involvement, and the potential for lowering the burden on taxpayers — if we do more to embrace Vermont’s publicly-funded tuitioning model.

The examples are all around us. Here in the Northeast Kingdom, the majority of towns are tuitioning towns. All you have to do is look at St. Johnsbury Academy, Lyndon Institute, Thaddeus Stephens School, the Riverside School, and Burke Mountain School to know that this system is doing something right. We believe all Vermont kids deserve to have access to publicly funded education opportunities like these, and vibrant, diverse, education oriented communities like the ones that surround and support these schools.

Fifteen years ago, the Mountain School at Winhall (MSW) embraced the town tuitioning model. The community voted to close its government-operated school, and reopen it as an independent school. At the time in 1998 the cost of the public school was the highest in the state at $12,600 a year, and the test scores for the students were among the lowest. Today, 15 years later, the cost per pupil at the Mountain School has risen by a total of 4.4% to $13,550 — $3,500 less than the roughly $17,000 per pupil average spent statewide. And, academically, by 2012, test scores at MSW improved to the point where 8th graders scored 13 points above the state average in Reading and Math, and 19 above in writing.

The foundation for this kind of success is fairness. A one-size-fits all model, in reality, fits few. And it is not fair for a child to have struggle in an environment that is ill suited to his or her personality, abilities or disabilities, or comfort level if a better choice can be made available.

A 2002 study by Christopher Hammons titled, The Effects of Town Tuitioning in Vermont and Maine, discovered and articulated very well the reason behind the tuitioning model’s success, both financially and academically:

“The positive relationship between tuition money and test scores reveals that at a minimum parents are choosing those schools that can produce better scores with their tuition money rather than schools that produce lower scores or schools where the money makes no difference. This is the very heart of the school choice model.” (Hammons, 16)

Now, I’d like to address idea of community.

Just this year in North Bennington, that community voted three times to follow in Winhall’s footsteps to close its local government-operated school, become a tuitioning town and open an independent, community supported school in its place. Forming an independent school was a community endeavor, and supporting that school will continue to be a community endeavor.

Again, I want to quote Mr. Mathis, who believes, that, school choice or charter schools are, “…not good for democracy, and we should not pursue policies that divide us rather than bring us together.” (William Mathis – NECP video) And thus he argues for a system in which people have no choice.

This is like saying that the best way to strengthen democracy is to deny people the right to vote. Voting is messy. People disagree, sometimes passionately. But that IS democracy. That process strengthens democracy. That give and take is the glue that binds communities together and makes them stronger. It’s how we truly get to know our neighbors and understand their dreams, and desires, as well as their needs and fears. This is especially true in the case of communities working together to meet the needs of their children.

People who are herded into a building whether they like it or not under the threat of government reprisal if they don’t comply may not exhibit much strife, but they are not participating in democracy.

Now, even Mr. Mathis has conceded in past statements that studies of school choice nationwide show an increased level of parent satisfaction with the schools their children attend. That satisfaction is evidence of a stronger bond of community – a greater level of acceptance in and value to the community, and, critically, a greater willingness to participate in that community.

At this point I’d like to hand things over to Tim Thompson, who has built one of these communities from the ground up….

– Rob Roper, Lyndon State College Debate, 12/13/13


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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.

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