by Rob Roper
Speaking about North Bennington’s recent vote to close their local public school and start a new independent school it its place, a move that would give full school choice to the children in the district, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca said, “The fear that I always have is what has happened in some other communities — that folks start moving to those communities since they now have private school opportunities available to them that they may not have had before.”
That’s a bad thing? School choice is such an attractive option for families that they are willing to locate or relocate in order to take advantage of the opportunity. It sounds more like an economic development program than something to be feared, and certainly not something to actively squashed. Nevertheless, there you have it, and this bizarre thought process did not end with the Commissioner.
State Board of Education Chairman, Steven Morse, questioned the chair of the North Bennington Prudential Committee (the school board), befuddled at how school choice actually enhances local control. “What I’m not getting is if I’m living in North Bennington, and I’ve turned my school over to a five person independent group,” said Morse, “… it seems to me if I’m such a resident I’ve given up all my say in what education is going to cost.”
“Absolutely not,” replied chairman Raymond Mullineaux.
“I’m not smart enough to figure it out,” said Morse.
“Well, yes you are!” said Mullineaux generously, and he went on to explain most eloquently exactly how school choice will enhance local control, accountability, and educational outcomes. It’s worth reviewing his response at length:
I’ve thought about this because I’m a public school person. I grew up in the public education system. But, in point of fact the North Bennington Prudential Committee continues to exist, and it has a budget. So, everybody in the community will still be voting on the budget…. There’s the political control over who’s on that board. There’s the political control over the budget that’s approved, which includes the tuition [level supported by taxes], and the voters can reject it. Now, in terms of our relationship to this independent school, we have control in the sense that we can exert influence on them by the fact that we have to construct a tuition agreement with them, and we have to construct and sign a lease…. [which the Committee can terminate if it does not like what the school is doing.]
The second thing, which is a little different from the normal political process, is that we give our parents choice. Our parents typically are pretty happy with the school they send their kids to, and we presume and hope that they will continue to send them to that school. But, it’s their choice. And they don’t have to make it if they’re not happy with it. We figure that by putting ourselves under that control of or parents, we will be working even harder to provide them with the best quality education as possible. And if the public board and the public in general see that that’s not happening, it’s going to show up in the numbers – that people are not sending their kids there. And, I believe that is a very powerful way for things to happen.
Now [parents] don’t have that option. They send their child to the school no matter what… I believe this empowers our citizens to make effective and rational choices about educating their children…. This will only cause improvements in what we provide in public education here.”
Board member William Mathis’s comment was most revealing. “One of the things that struck me was that the Prudential Committee has every one of those authorities directly rather than indirectly [under the status quo]. Why would you want to give away your direct power – your direct democratic power – to effect the very same issues that you’re talking about there. It seems like it puts a buffer in between you and diminishes your power.”
What Mathis, a virulent opponent of school choice, doesn’t get is that children might actually be better off when people such as himself cede power to parents. But for him and unfortunately too many others in the education bureaucracy, the name of the game is all about accumulating power and control. The idea of giving up power is anathema to folks like Mathis, and he can’t understand why anyone else would do so. Local control for these people means they’re in control. Period.
Mill Moore, the Executive Director for the Vermont Independent Schools Association commented on North Bennington’s concerns regarding local control and how they apply to the broader debate on education happening in Vermont. “The Education Department, the Ed Board and the Legislature all have made quite clear they either favor or are looking very seriously at having fewer schools, fewer districts and fewer supervisory unions,” said Moore. “Any responsible official in a small district has to look at that political and policy climate and wonder what their district’s long-term chances of survival in the public system might be and how the push toward more centralized control affects local control and accountability.
He concluded, “I think one might better look at the North Bennington community’s decision to offer unrestricted parent-controlled school choice and to encourage a local independent school as a courageous proactive step toward maintaining real local control and high educational standards.”
Vermont has a 150 year history of school choice for some of its towns, and it is and has been both popular and successful. Perhaps the bureaucracy’s latest attempts to consolidate more power for itself will actually lead to the opposite result – more North Benningtons – to the ultimate benefit of children and families. But, given the fact that the State Board tabled North Bennington’s application to open an independent school indefinitely, that outcome is going to require one heck of a fight.