Mathis Forgets G.I. Bill Was A Voucher Program

by Bruce Buxton

This piece is a response to an Op-Ed by William Mathis of the Vermont State School Board, which can be read HERE

Mr. Mathis is right: school reformers tend to look in the wrong direction when they propose to improve schools by more elaborate testing. That whistle was blown some years ago by scientist Stephen Jay Gould (more than a scientist…he was a widely read, thoughtful, and highly literate intellectual), author of The Mismeasure of Man, a book that exposed the limitations of testing and revealed many of the fallacious assumptions behind confidence in testing as a means of school reform. Yet this classic study seems to have escaped the notice of most bureaucratic school reformers.

Mathis is right to celebrate the glory of the GI Bill, but he seems innocent of its dimensions outside of its economic design. Mathis is opposed to school vouchers, but, surprise! the GI bill was a national voucher plan that echoed the school choice schemes pioneered in Vermont for generations of students, as small Vermont districts tuitioned their students to public schools, boarding schools and private town academies outside their districts. Just 50 years ago a child in Barnet Vermont, on the strength of the Barnet Voucher, could attend St .Johnsbury Academy, Peacham Academy, Lyndon Institute, McIndoes Academy or Thetford Academy, or any other public or private school that had a place for him. In most places, these kinds of choice are only available to the rich.

More radically, the GI Bill’s vouchers supported both public and private colleges and (another surprise!) religious schools and seminaries. Some estimates hold that 38,000 divinity degrees were funded by the GI Bill.

One of the glories of the GI Bill is that it recognized and worked with the peculiar glory of American education: the variegated mix of public and private school cooperation and competition that has attracted tuition paying students in their thousands from abroad to study in American high schools and colleges.

In Vermont, professors educated in private colleges are to be found driving the standard of instruction in public colleges and high schools. The deans at UVM look carefully at the programs offered at Middlebury and Dartmouth and hire instructors from these kinds of schools. The cross fertilization inherent in such a dynamic ensures that the most elite schools influence the standards for everyone else. A similar dynamic of competitive interplay exists at the high school level. Nationally, the charter schools, which are the products of a national move toward the greater accountability of school choice, hire many of their school leaders from well regarded and successful private schools.

Vermont is plagued by the national hobgoblin of “equality.” Everyone must have the same opportunity, therefore school choice is bad and top down bureaucratic regulation is good because it forces the bland sameness of equality of opportunity down everyone’s throats, never mind the dismal history of such top down social engineering.

If the pious reforming bureaucrats read their Aristotle and thought about it much, they’d remember his caution that the accomplishment of equality requires unequal efforts. Put another way, one size does not fit all. Perhaps the special needs controversy reveals this dynamic best. Should every private school that accepts a voucher from a public district be required to embrace and offer the special needs curricula orthodoxies approved by Vermont bureaucrats far from the classroom? Why? Vermont’s Landmark College is a private school which has led the nation in developing special needs curriculum. Another Vermont private school, the Greenwood School near Putney, is featured in a Ken Burns documentary,The Address. Reluctant to spoil the narrative for any reader able to find and watch this moving film, I will not reveal the strange but effective curriculum. Riverdale School on Cape Cod is another private school specializing in special needs that creates its own very effective curriculum. These schools cannot fail or they will close, because their enrollments depend on a heightened accountability to their students and the parents. This runs counter to the myths fostered by the anti-choice crowd that choice is about evading accountability. Private schools do not certify their teachers in the same way public schools do. Nor do they wish to. They depend on getting the fit right. They are directly accountable their parents and students. And they succeed by the kind of innovation only found in institutions free of a narrow sclerotic interference measuring all achievement against cautious, bland, bureaucratic orthodoxies. That is the fundamental truth school choice addresses.
The historic strengths of a dynamic American hybrid mix of public and private schools is what we need to honor and preserve.

Bruce Buxton is Headmaster Emeritus of Falmouth Academy on Cape Cod and Executive Director of the Scandinavian Seminar in Amherst, MA

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