By Lindsay Smith
School choice, a long talked about but seldom acted upon education reform, has suddenly seen an explosion of support nation-wide. The latest success story comes from Indiana where Governor Mitch Daniels recently signed into law the School Scholarship Act. The school choice advocacy organization, The Milton Freedman Foundation described this as, “the nation’s largest voucher program into law,” bringing us, “closer to realizing Friedman’s vision of liberty in education for every child.”
This year, Vermont is also seriously exploring the opportunities to expand school choice beyond the ninety plus town that already enjoy the privilege. Several bills pertaining to school choice are percolating in the State House, and the measure has, at least on some level, the support of the governor.
The most prominent one at this point is S.201, a bill sponsored by Senator Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), who is also the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Mullin’s bill would authorize public school choice for all elementary and high school pupils in the state beginning in the 2013-2014 academic year, and would be fully implemented by the 2016-2017 academic year.
Parents who have school choice and those who would like it had the chance to tell the Senate Education Committee their stories. Citing many reasons, such as bullying, learning disabilities, gifted abilities, language and special class offerings, class size, location, and approaches to teaching, parents are recognizing public schools are unfit to suit their child’s needs, and they are choosing to home school or purchase private education for their children.
Every parent who gave testimony was in support of the bill and was emotional about in advocating for its passage parents are asking legislators to take the decision making away from district lines and put it in their hands. The committee heard numerous parental accounts of their children’s struggles with the public school system, educators, and school administration.
Marc Whitman, a father and veteran music teacher in Rutland City, never thought about school choice before he became a parent. As someone who works in the public school system he recognizes the good education they provide. Under normal circumstances, he may have enrolled his son in public school, but tragically when his son was only two years old Marc’s wife developed a brain tumor. The treatment left her unable to remain the mother figure his son was accustomed to. Because of his son’s emotional state, Mark believes his development was delayed. So when it came time to enroll his son in school Mark “was concerned about sending him to public school while he was still fragile”. Mark chose a private Christian school because it “met my education goals for him as well as our faith values”. From this experience Marc believes “parents are the consumers of the education and they can choose where is best” and “ultimately… education is the parent’s responsibility”. He believes with school choice parents will assume the responsibility for their children’s education.
Tina Cambridge, a mother with a sixth grade daughter, must travel forty-five minutes from her daughter’s school to her job. When her daughter enters Lamoille Middle School her drive will increase by thirty minutes. Tina enjoys the time she can spend at her daughter’s school and attending important school events. She knows that with a hour and a half round trip, she will not be able to leave work and attend her daughter’s school activities. At such an important time in her daughter’s life, Tina wishes she choose a school for her daughter that is closer to where she works.
Many parents who spoke noted that they were fortunate enough to have options. Kelly Bartlett added, “Not all families are so fortunate” and Kimberly Barnhart noted “so many families that don’t even have that option, their kids are stuck where they are”.
In order for Jamie Shawn, a mother from Huntington, to enroll her daughter in private school she must, “literally work, on average, 15 to 17 hours a day….. Literally every Monday through Friday, eight to twelve hours. Every Saturday and Sunday.” She added, “I have worked Thanksgiving, I worked Christmas, every Easter, every school holiday since she’s been in Kindergarten.”
Shawn explained how, after high school, students are encouraged to pursue a career and learning style that allows them to “follow their bliss” saying, “As adults post high school we get to choose those things.” She believes, “We are all self motivated learners,” and, “at any age almost every individual can tell you how they learn best.”
Shawn’s daughter Halley, who has dyslexia and left public school after ten days in Kindergarten to attend private school, is now back in public middle school. Halley added that she feels “bored” in public school. She excelled at private schools like Waldorf but is now loosing interest in the classroom. “I want to be able to learn things they are teaching me but they way they are teaching me is not interesting.”
Kelly Bartlett, shared the reason’s her friends are choosing private schools. They chose schools based on a theater arts program, potential to study Latin, a bullying problem in their current school, and keeping their children with the same kids they attended daycare with. She supports school choice because it “puts parents in control.”
“No matter what the reason, all Vermont children deserve the very best education possible whether it’s in their town or the one next door. After all, we live in a global age where our children will be expected to compete with China and India for jobs. And yet, we have this archaic system of boxing students in to designated based on random lines that beaurocrats drew on regional maps years ago… Let’s take the power from maps and give the power to parents.”
The senators listened intently to each personal account and sympathized with the struggles of the parents and their students. When the opposition comes to testify we should hear to learn more of funding, transportation, and academic quality concerns that often surround this topic.
Rob Roper contributed to this article