How Politicians Choose on Choice

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

Within the last month or so, two well-known political figures in Vermont have taken opposing stands on the school-choice question. That’s the one which focuses on the concept that parents who don’t like the geography-of-residence-based public school assignment for their children might be free to find a better (and similarly-free) seat for their upwardly-mobile (that’s education-, not social-wise) student in a school beyond the town or supervisory union official enrollment area. Technically, the “choice” argument (for schools, not births) extends beyond the inventory of public schools, including charters, which do better because they’re less intensively-regulated than the traditional Horace-Mann-designed K-12 units, to include private academies, both secular and religious, where the State might use its taxpayers’ money to pay tuition based on the per-pupil amount it would have spent in its own schools. That’s the Voucher Dispute. In this case, however, the ‘famous ones’ have mutually agreed to disagree solely on the availability (or not) of not-in-the-district public schools only, a flexible phrase which historically has included the semi-private academies like Burr & Burton in Manchester and excluded the heresy of funding-following-students to such fully private (and well-enrolled)competitors, long-standing and recent, as the six in Addison County.

The pro-choice famous one revealed his preference in early August to State print media, which duly reported the instant opposition of the State teacher’s union, the Vermont NEA. Specifically, said Governor Peter Shumlin, he would “urge lawmakers to adopt legislation guaranteeing universal public school choice”. More recently, the Guv became (more temporarily?) famous for his Vermont Yankee fish story, the one in which he first announced he wouldn’t eat a supposedly radioactive fish caught eight miles upstream from the officially-despised Entergy-owned nuclear power plant, and then announced his pro-choice stand on the fishy question: others could eat or not, as they chose. The Guv was clear on keeping the public-school monopoly intact: “where you lose me is where you get into parochial and private schools in school choice”, he opined. Decoded, that means: No Vouchers.

The anti-choice famous one revealed his preference in late June to State print media, in an op-ed headlined “Be Wary of Economists Bearing Education Reforms” and deriding the statistical finding that public schools subjected to competition from parent-selected alternatives suddenly find ways to raise their own students’ achievement scores. Specifically, wrote retired public-school superintendent William Mathis in paragraphs dismissing achievement-testing as “measuremyopia” and “regressionia”, “…test scores are only a small part of schools…” and “…the richness, of what education is and should be, is unseen…” a line which parallels a two-decade-old Rutland Herald editorial dismissing the notion that mere taxpayers could presume to attempt to measure the “ineffable” education process for actual achievement results. Less recently, the ex-Super became (less temporarily?) famous for his involvement in the lawsuit-against-the-Feds over its almost-all-students-Proficient-by-2014 requirement, the lawsuit arguing that public schools had no obligation to educate any particular percentage of students to Proficiency, that any such demand was an unfunded Federal mandate, but that public schools could do it if they got a lot more money from taxpayers. Like the Guv, the ex-Super was clear on keeping the public school monopoly intact, specifically by preventing school-performance evaluation by parents who, if they could compare, might choose to put their kids in other-than-designated schools. He’s opposed to any process where even a supposedly monopoly-service-area public school might lose customer share to one the next town over, and perhaps even go bankrupt (a little Joseph Schumpeter creative-destruction-in-pursuit-of-heightened-productivity lingo, there) because the parent-preferred school does a better job.

Whether school choice is “on the right side of history” (a little we’re-smarter-than-you Progressive lingo, there) remains to be seen; after all, non-public-school choice enjoyed deeper market penetration in the ‘50’s than it does today. But now, when such governmental behemoths as NYC embrace school choice (read the glowing account on the Education Week website) although only for the Shumlin-preferred public alternatives, including charters and excluding, as described in this column recently, the non-public options embraced in Douglas County, CO, maybe the trend is, indeed, visible and welcome. Up to now, its visibility has been a hazard. Consider, for examine, the Caroline Hoxby story.

She was the Harvard economics-professor/researcher (did I mention that famous-person-2 is dismissive -wary– of economists who presume to intrude onto the private turf of public education?) who, in 2001, published a study entitled “the Economics of School Choice”. It summarizes thus: she found that students in districts where multiple school selection options were available all scored better on achievement tests than in districts where a more typical no-choice assignment system prevailed. That was irrespective of whether the students’ parents actually chose a different school for their kids. Her findings provoked the predictable public-educator reaction and six years later, after her study methodology and findings couldn’t be found incorrect, she was de-fenestrated at Harvard anyway and moved to Stanford to continue her studies, some with Eric Hanushek. He’s the former University of Rochester economics professor who similarly committed heresy in his studies finding that reducing class size raised per-pupil costs but not student achievement, provoked a similar edu-crat reaction, couldn’t be proven wrong, was similarly de-fenestrated, and similarly fled to Stanford.

Of even more interest to your Humble Scribe is the famous-person-2 comment putting “…intelligence and virtue…the safeguarding of liberty…the preservation of good government… and the prevention of vice…” ahead of testable reading and counting skills in graded schools, suggesting thereby that the K-12 school are really miniature universities for thoughtful intellectuals who happen to be short and young, who should be learning to be the future philosopher-kings of a Progressive society, and not wasting their time and talent on memorizing the 36 symbols of reading and counting. More on this public-educator campaign for the replacement-of-Horace-Mann-and-Bismarck with-Plato-and-Aristotle next week.