Ideologically Motivated Resistance to Education Reform in Vermont Goes a Little Higher up the Political Ladder than Local Teachers

It looks like a Franklin County public schools superintendent is under fire for the supposedly blunt manner in which he accused local teachers as being an obstacle to school reform.  According to a recent article in the Burlington Free Press he “used profanity in emails and media interviews about the controversy.”  While he appears to regret the way he expressed his frustration, he is not backing off from the substance of his argument: ‘Rosane publicly apologized for the tone of his message but not the gist in a letter to the St. Albans Messenger newspaper published last week. He repeated his contention that the administration of BFA-St. Albans, Franklin county’s largest high school, was an “immovable” force and called on the community for help in bringing about change.’

Perhaps he might want to aim a little higher than local teachers when looking for obstacles to reform of Vermont’s educational system.  Consider the following from a February Commentary by Ethan Allen Institute founder John McClaughry:

An evil plot is afoot to pressure the states to adopt “school choice schemes”, according to onetime Rutland Northeast Superintendent Dr. William J. Mathis. He is currently a Shumlin appointee to the Vermont State Board of Education and Managing Director of the grandly-named “National Education Policy Center” at the University of Colorado.

According to Mathis’s article “School Choice: What the Research Shows”, the centerpiece of the plot is the Obama administration’s pressure on states to create charter schools. Vermont is one of 13 states that do not authorize public charter schools, thanks to the surprisingly determined opposition of Gov. Howard Dean and, naturally, the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union. The idea is not popular with the public school establishment either, since allowing parents to choose charter schools for their children threatens an exodus from poorly-performing traditional schools that their management may find it hard to explain when asking taxpayers for more money.

It’s not just the Obama administration, either. Mathis states that “Vested interest think tanks, heavily supported by the deep-pockets of the Gates, Broad, and Friedman foundations” are also “major pushers” (as if parental choice is some kind of narcotic.)

Mathis’ crusade against school choice appears to be ideologically driven:

In any case, Mathis has well earned the dubious accolade of being Vermont’s most persistent and extravagant opponent of giving parents more educational choices for their children. His opposition flows from a deeply-held ideology derived from the well-known socialist of the 1920s, John Dewey: “the purpose of education is a democratic society.”

For Mathis, that translates into a government-operated monopoly school system, managed by far-seeing and certified experts, into whose unionized schools parents are required to consign their children, and for which taxpayers are required to pay whatever is deemed necessary.

In support of his crusade against school choice Mathis raises the spector of parents not making informed choices and cherry picks his research groups to make the case against school choice:

Without this common education requirement, Mathis believes, parents will too often make ill-informed educational choices that appear to them better for their children, with no concern for the democratic ideal. And that’s not democratic!

In his commentary Mathis declares that “the legitimate peer reviewed research shows that in general there isn’t any difference in test scores” between students in traditional public schools and choice programs. This is true only if one accepts Mathis’s condition that “so-called ‘research’ by groups advancing or opposing choice” are disqualified.

Last year Dr. Greg Forster (PhD Yale) published a report summarizing all ten empirical studies that used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies found that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit, and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study found no visible impact. None of these studies found a negative impact.

Mathis’ “commentary” on the evils of school choice was published in  February 9th 2012 edition of Vermont Digger.  Here is the “evil plot” he sees behind the school choice movement:

Vermont’s historical choice system was founded on very different principles than today’s ideological agenda. In the 19th century, the aim was to provide public education to all Vermont children and the existing patchwork of private academies and religious schools were folded into a universal system. The purpose of the current movement, however, is to replace public governance with a privatized capitalistic model. The Vermont constitution says the purpose of education is to advance the common good (increase virtue and prevent vice). Thus, providing education as a market commodity fundamentally changes the democratic purpose of education.

One is tempted to ask just how giving parents the free choice to send their children to the school of the parents choosing is going to replace the public school system “with a privatized capitalistic model” if the public schools are just as good as the private schools?  If they are not as good, why shouldn’t they be replaced if the object is to achieve the best education for the children, rather than merely preserve the public school monopoly?  How on earth is giving parents the free choice of where to send their children to school less “democratic” than having that choice made for them by a government run monopoly?  Apparently the answer the those questions is that parents do not their choices based on deeply held values, or what is better for their own children: “Parents tend to choose the bigger town where Mom or Dad works — which solves the huge Vermont transportation problem.”  That is odd, because most parents I know who send their children to private schools are willing to pay tuition on top of the property taxes they pay in order to given their children a better education that better reflects the parents values.  They certainly are not incurring the extra expense out of convenience, or to solve the “transportation problem”.  The real issue here is not that the parents are not making their decisions on what is best for their children, but their decisions do not fit someone’s notion the “common good”:  “Schools are the one remaining institution that melds all elements of society. In an increasingly cyber-fragmented world with big business loyal to their international bottom line, holding our culture together becomes more difficult, more critical – and more important.”  This view echos John Dewey’s statement in an 1899 address to educators: “You can’t make socialists out of individualists. Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is independent..”

So, the purpose of the schools is to mold our children into some harmonious collective society, not necessarily to give them the best education possible.  What we have here is a fundamental conflict of values regarding the purpose of education between parents and the bureaucrats running our education system.  It is no wonder that these bureaucrats cringe at the notion of giving parents control over educational decision making.  This fundamental nature of the real debate is being obscured in orwellian fashion by hysterical claims of an evil capitalist conspiracy to replace our public education system with a sinister private one.

One thought on “Ideologically Motivated Resistance to Education Reform in Vermont Goes a Little Higher up the Political Ladder than Local Teachers

  1. Interesting note on the behavior of educators and academics when challenged on doctrine: Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby, teacher and researcher, found through statistical studies that local public schools with poor student achievement scores somehow improved instructional quality when faced with student-departure-causing competition from new charter schools. For her efforts she was subtly de-fenestrated by Harvard and is now pursuing her research at the Hoover Institution.

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