Dangers of a Monopoly Education System

January 29, 2020

Today Vermonters celebrated School Choice Week and Vermont’s century-and-a-half old system of town tuitioning, our independent schools, home schoolers, and most importantly the children and parents who make this system work. It has always bothered me that school choice isn’t seen by many in our own freedom-loving, Constitution-preserving movement that school choice isn’t seen as the root solution to so many of the problems we all say we want solved. Everybody says they love school choice, but I see the statistics: when we post something on school choice there is a collective yawn when it comes to engagement. This is the wrong reaction. The simple fact is that we cannot expect children to learn, respect and understand capitalism, competition, and all of their benefits by sending them every day into government controlled, monopoly protected institutions. 

In his keynote speech at the School Choice Week awards ceremony, David Kelly really hit the nail on the head. His remarks are printed here with permission…


By David F. Kelley

From 1988 to 1989 I was a visiting scholar at what is now called the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and I sat through a lot of brilliant seminars.  But the most enlightening seminar that I ever listened to back then was with a cab driver one afternoon in New York City.

The cab driver had an accent and I asked where he was from.  He said he was from Poland. Then I asked what brought him to the United States.  He explained it something like this:

He said Poland has enormous natural resources with vast deposits of iron ore, coal and other precious minerals.  Poland has seaports and easy access to shipping and world trade. But Poland was then one of the poorest countries in Europe and Eurasia.

On the other hand, he said, Austria had almost no natural resources and no seaports.  Yet Austria was one of the most prosperous countries in the world. The cab driver asked me to explain that, and I admitted I couldn’t.  Then he told me he could.

He said that in Poland the government was run by one party with one ideology, and with no choices and no competition.  He said the economy, likewise, was run by the government with no individual creativity, no choices and no competition.

He said the Austrian economy was built on free enterprise and the Austrian government was based on free elections.

He said that he had learned that good outcomes depend more on good systems than on vast resources.  All of the money in the world invested in the wrong place is just a waste. He said free societies and free economies will be far more prosperous with fewer resources than political and economic monopolies with greater resources.

The evidence of what that cab driver was saying is everywhere—not just Austria and Poland in the 1980’s .  It is evident in the contrast between South Korea and North Korea today. It is evident in the contrast between Canada and Venezuela today.  We are fortunate in our country that Teddy Roosevelt was courageous enough to break up the railroad and oil monopolies in the early 1900’s or we might still be riding horses to school.

Whether we  are talking about politics or economics, innovation, quality and efficiency depend on a free exchange of goods and ideas, and opportunities for individual imaginations to take root and grow.  Throughout the 20th century our public schools have been mini-monopolies.  To our credit, Vermont has had tuitioning towns for over a century.  But in 2013 Vermont took a big step forward with the passage of Act 77 and an effort to create  “personalized learning plans” and “flexible pathways.” The promise of Act 77 is a tall order and it has yet to be realized. The goal is to let students at Vermont public schools get off the conveyor belt and move beyond standard classroom curriculums.  The hope is to create more choices, more opportunities and more community based learning that extends beyond the walls of our traditional schools. If we are serious, then by community we should be talking about more than just a local community. We should be talking about a global community with portable tuitions so that every student has more choices, including the opportunity to be a foreign exchange student.  For students with a passion for farming we need to help them explore successful farms. For students with a passion for food we need to help them explore successful food companies. Wherever we find a unique passion or interest we need to nurture it with more choices and more opportunities.

Students who come from affluent families, have choices.  In the United States they have perhaps more opportunities than any students anywhere in the world.  But I have worked with Vermont schools for almost 40 years. In that time I have known students who lived in trailers with no heat.  I have known students who came to school in winter with sneakers and no socks, not because it was the latest fashion, but because their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t buy them socks.  I have known students whose parents didn’t feed them. I have known too many students who were victims of substance abuse, or who lived in fear of their parents violence at home.

The student who lives in a trailer with no heat and the student who goes home to an alcoholic father, are the students who are most damaged by mass produced education.  All the stars in the sky and all the wishes in the world aren’t going to make their dreams come true. But many of these students still have dreams of a better life and a better world. And there is much we can do to help keep those dreams alive.

With dual enrollment and early college enrollment, Act 77 has made college more accessible to every Vermont student.  But that still isn’t good enough.  We can do better.

Vermont’s leadership claims to be concerned about Vermont’s graying demographic.  If Vermont is serious about making every child’s education “personalized” and providing every child with a “flexible” pathway with more choices, more opportunities and more community based learning, then we need to make tuitions more portable such that every child with a unique interest and passion, no matter which town they live in, or what kind of family they come from, can pursue those passions.  If we do that then Vermont will become a magnet for every family with young children in the entire country. And instead of worrying about a graying demographic, we can spend a lot more time and resources nurturing every student’s dream of a better future.


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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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