Commentary: Public Schools Are Failing Disadvantaged Kids (June, 2016)

by Rob RoperRob Roper

Voices for Vermont Children just published a pretty remarkable indictment of our public school system. The study, Education Matters: The Impacts of Systemic Inequity in Vermont, concludes that public schools as they are currently operated are systematically leaving behind poor kids, minorities and those with special needs.

But wait a minute…. I thought this was what school choice and independent schools did!

Aren’t we constantly being told that allowing taxpayer dollars to flow to independent schools via tuitioning is unjust because poor kids without transportation are excluded, special needs kids are outright discriminated against, and minorities… well, we can just assume those elitists must be racist too, right?

It turns out that the opposite is true. It’s the independent schools that take in those who don’t fit with the public school program and give them an opportunity to thrive. The study concludes that:

  • children with disabilities and students of color all score worse on standardized tests than children who aren’t in these groups.
  • the achievement gap between income levels averages 25 percent and the racial gap averages about 18 percent.
  • [there are] dramatically different levels of suspension and expulsion for low-income students compared to their peers.

Couple these findings with those from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), arguably the most comprehensive and respected study on the impacts of school choice in the nation. CREDO’s latest study concludes that school choice especially benefits children in poverty, minorities, and English-as-a-second-language students. For example:

Charter students in poverty in 2013 continue to have an advantage over their TPS [Traditional Public School] counterparts. The difference in 2013 is 14 additional days of learning. Both continuing and new schools have statistically significant and positive reading impacts for charter students in poverty.


Compared to the learning gains of TPS students in poverty, charter students in poverty learn significantly more in math,… Moreover, this difference in performance has widened. In 2009, charter students in poverty had about seven additional days of learning in math than their TPS peers, while in 2013 the advantage is 22 additional days of learning for charter students in poverty. Mirroring the reading findings, both continuing and new schools in 2013 have positive math impacts for charter students in poverty. (National Charter School Study 2013)

Interestingly, CREDO also found that access to school choice didn’t provide significant benefits for wealthier, non-minority, non-special needs students.

And this makes sense. Public schools are geared to work for the mainstream children of better educated, politically savvy, usually wealthier parents in a community. (And they do a great job at this!) When everyone is forced to attend a single public school – one-size-fits-all – who determines what that one size is? It’s the parents who have the time to attend meetings, know and understand the laws, and have the resources to aggressively advocate for their children. If you don’t fit that mold, you’re likely to fall through the cracks.

In addition, arbitrarily drawn public school district lines are contributing greatly to the growing problem of wealth segregation and inequality in our communities. Wealthier parents tend to move into neighborhoods with good public schools, driving up housing prices and property taxes in the process, making access to higher quality school districts even more expensive.

Children of less well off parents who can’t afford the house, the rent or the taxes in the high-end public school districts are left behind – trapped within the glass walls of their zip codes. Unless, they are empowered by parent directed school choice where the money follows the child.

Rick Gordon, founder of the independent Compass School in Westminster, Vermont, explained this in testimony before the House Education Committee. Independent schools in Vermont don’t “cherry pick” the best students away from the public schools. “Why would they [students] leave [the public school] if they are successful there? The kids Vermont’s Independent schools serve are the kids who are different from what the system works best with. These kids are potentially expensive to educate, and they are potentially expensive to society if they are not successful in school…. They’re insightful, clever, interesting kids, and they deserve a chance to be successful too.”

So, if the folks at Voices for Vermont Families are really interested in building more equity into the way we allocate public dollars to educate our children, and in doing a better job of equalizing the outcomes of poor, minority, and special needs students compared to their better off peers, expanding access to school choice is a proven solution to the problem.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe. 

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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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