School Choice Is What’s Best for Vermont’s Most Vulnerable Kids — And Taxpayers

by Rob Roper

Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol), chair of the House Education Committee said, “Our responsibility here in the legislature… is the education of all the children in the state.” Rick Gordon of the Compass School politely disagreed, “The question before us,” said Gordon, “is not how we educate not all our children, but every child.” That, in its essence, is the philosophical difference between public school “system” advocates and school choice advocates.

As Gordon explains, “Putting students in the same place works if everybody is coming from the same place…. Equity means giving people more of what they need to have a fair shot at success. And that means, often, different things for different kids.”

The Compass School, of which Gordon is a founder, was set up to be a model of public school choice with an emphasis of serving the kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks. “We mean to work side by side with our public schools to serve those kids who aren’t successful and would be costly to educate and who have struggled in a public school setting.”

The results have been stellar, “Over 50 percent of our kids are free and reduced lunch, over 20 percent historically with special ed…. We educate kids for thousands of dollars less per pupil than the public schools. We have virtually a 100 percent graduation rate; 90 percent of our kids are accepted into colleges. These kids are thriving, and not just getting by.”

Gordon gives and example of one Compass student who was being bullied in his public school. A group of boys was harassing him, and in one instance put acetone in his milk. “The school claimed, as they are supposed to under law, we can provide him a free and appropriate education with accommodations. The parents said, you can not do that. That same group of boys is still going to be there.”


“They had to fight. The [public school] district fought them with arbitration in the courts, and spent a lot of money to prevent him from going to Compass…. The district eventually agreed to put him in a public middle school in the opposite direction from where his parents worked, that would have cost $4000 to $5000 more than Compass would have cost.”

“The parents eventually won [their case], and that kid is now thriving at our school, without needing special ed services he was going to need [had he stayed in the public school system]. It works for his family and allows him to get the kind of support and be in a small environment that works better for him than his previous school.”

Gordon explained that independent schools in Vermont don’t “cherry pick” the best students away from the public schools. “Why would they leave 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.”

“By sixth or eighth grade some of these kids have figured out in their own heads, I don’t fit. Especially in Vermont where we have typically have around us one grade classes that the kid’s figured out, this group of kids, I don’t like being with…. And when they’ve figure that out by sixth or eighth grade, another four or six years is not going to change them. And so they become hopeless…. Hopeless to the point of being suicidal. They can’t see another four or six years of being around that same group of kids who they’ve struggled with up to that point. Again, that’s expensive to figure out how to accommodate.”

Gordon concluded with a plea to fix Act 46 to protect the status of Vermont’s tuitioning towns. “While Act 46 had noble goals, in the interest of “equality” I think we’re going to lessen equity and opportunity, and we’re likely to increase costs as individual kids who aren’t served well become more and more costly, needing special accommodations, special meetings, all kinds of supports…. So, in the long run, I think having choice is less expensive for us as a state and provides more opportunities for kids.”

Please contact your legislators today and tell them to fix Act 46 to protect school choice towns – as they promised to do – this year.

Find you legislators HERE.

Members of the House Education Committee

Members of the Senate Education Committee

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