A School Choice Shell Game?

by John McClaughry

John McClaughry

In remarks to the State Board of Education on August 9, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that he was preparing legislation to implement universal public school choice in Vermont. “I’ve always been a proponent of school choice,” he said, to the surprise of veteran school choice partisans who hadn’t noticed that tendency during Shumlin’s years of legislative service. It also surprised the Vermont-NEA teachers union, which the Governor had apparently failed to consult on the matter.

Shumlin observed that universal public school choice would remove the specter of tuition towns losing choice from merger discussions. He also stated that of course he opposed allowing parents to send their children to independent or parochial schools at public expense – but also said that he didn’t intend to interfere with that opportunity in the 91 existing tuition towns.

Taking that all together, universal choice will expedite school district mergers, tuition towns won’t lose the choice their parents have had since 1869, but no one will be able to choose independent schools. This is surely an improbable combination of conditions.

First, some recent history. In his 1998 state of the state message, Gov. Howard Dean made a strong plea for parental choice in education, provided of course that the parents choose a public school controlled by the Department of Education and organized by the Vermont-NEA.

Two years later the Democratic legislature enacted Act 150, the public choice bill for grades 9-12. It set up a bureaucratic interschool exchange scheme heavy with restrictions.

Vermonters for Better Education, the parental choice organization, noted that the bill was little more than a fig leaf to allow some legislators to hide from their constituents “the naked truth that they have no intention of ever supporting a real school choice program.”

In its most recent (2008) annual report on the workings of the Act, the Department of Education found that less than one percent of all public high school students applied, and only about half of them actually enrolled in a public school of choice. The report concluded that “the small number of participants, both of those who applied and transferred and of those who applied but did not transfer, makes it impossible to draw specific or broad conclusions.”

The reason that Act 150 flopped is that most of the students who want out of public schools don’t want to go to other public schools. They want to go to independent schools, faith-based and secular, that offer the curriculum they want, teach to higher standards, maintain better discipline, avoid child medication excesses, steer clear of invasive behavioral questionnaires , reject politically correct indoctrination, and avoid a school climate often produced by combative teachers’ unions.

Enacting “universal public school choice” will not prove attractive to most of those parents.

If the condition of the forthcoming Shumlin plan is that parents can choose only among the public schools in a Regional Education District (authorized in 2010 but yet to be approved by voters), then parents in the tuition towns that joined a RED would lose their existing choice of secular independent (non unionized) schools. That would seriously cripple some or all of those schools.

If on the other hand the Shumlin plan would allow tuition dollars to follow any child to any public school in the state, some disfavored public schools would surely be driven to extinction. This is the main concern of the Vermont-NEA. It represents the teachers in potentially failing schools, who may find themselves out of jobs. Already the union is wailing about the possible loss of “locally funded, locally accountable and locally run schools”.

Since Shumlin rarely puts all his cards face up on the table, it is inviting to try to discern the strategy developing in his fertile mind. It would be surprising to see him emerge as a principled friend of parental choice for the sake of the parents and children.

One may be forgiven for believing that it’s more likely that the governor’s advocacy of universal public school choice will turn out to be part of a package designed to produce some other not immediately evident – or desirable – results.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.