View from the White Elephant: Irony

by Martin Harris

Many years ago –so far back in time that the original private-enterprise late-19th century Pavilion Hotel was still taking overnight guests on the site where the faux (replacement) Pavilion Hotel/State government office building now stands– the mid-20th century once-sufficient marble-clad government office building across State Street was labeled “the white elephant” by a then-more-independent Vermont population which had a different view of the appropriate scope of government. Not any more: to judge from election returns and street-theatre events, the loud (possibly) majority now wants more from government than the old-timers did, and has a different view of the “freedom” cited in the State motto. But there’s a quieter (and possibly) majority which thinks and acts in more traditional ways, which explains why the Ethan Allen descendants (philosophically, not genetically) in North Bennington, eventually frustrated into action after decades of public school quality decline and cost increase, has almost decided to end their government elementary school and start anew with a private school. The vote will take place this month. The reaction from State Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca is enlightening.

He argues against the privatization, asserting that “it’s ironic” that, in pursuit of the local control which school boards once had, and have lost, thanks to the actions of himself and most of his predecessors in recent decades, that North Bennington voters would turn away from the government school model and toward the private model. In his view-from-the-white-elephant (top floors) he sees a monopoly or near-so government service (schools, in this instance) as more responsive to service-consumer concerns than a competitive private service which, under free-enterprise rules, can make or continue the sale only when the customer is pleased with the cost-quality equation. English economist Adam Smith, in the late 18th century famously explained why just the opposite has been proven by the contrasting histories of commerce under governments or markets, in general. And in the late 20th, Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby did just the same for schools in particular, showing statistically how public schools faced with charter or private competition (and loss of market share in enrollment) typically then (and only then) responded by offering better instruction resulting in and measured by marginally higher achievement scores. Of course, they could have made the changes earlier, if they were (subjunctive contrary to fact) so much more responsive to customer wishes than private enterprise as their Commissioners typically claim, but they didn’t. Quod erat demostrandum.

The proof is in the numbers (ironically, government-sourced) of the annual Federal achievement tests administered to a small but representative sample of students across the Nation, which uniformly show only about a third or so of students showing at-grade Proficiency in such as Math and Reading, the other two-thirds making (or, in some cases, not even making) Basic, a 40-year-long series of findings so well known to Commissioners like AV that they have authorized the use of special-purchase substitute tests which (not so ironically) are designed (and sell on that basis) to produce remarkably higher Proficiency scores. And yet Commissioner AV thinks it “ironic” that North Bennington parents would consider his schools less accountable than a fully-private competitor or quasi-private charter not so completely under his chain-of-command governance. That’s the governance which in recent decades has been telling school boards that most of their budget is staffing and isn’t under their control, and therefore they shouldn’t challenge the expensive class-size-reduction campaign, or that test scores don’t show the real (in Rutland, it’s been called “ineffable”) education going on, and therefore they shouldn’t attempt to address the low Proficiency rates or high per-pupil costs constantly published.

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A parent/taxpayer response to a Commissioner of Education asserting government’s superiority in productivity and openness over the private sector, and perceiving “irony” in any recalcitrant group of natives presuming to think otherwise, may already be in place. Two aspects: one direct, one indirect; both involve the penultimate (short of going to the barricades, European-style) citizen/voter option of the podiatric ballot. For younger readers making only Basic, not Proficient, that’s voting with your feet. In education, that direct-action option has been illustrated by the growth in non-public (private) and quasi-public (charter-school) enrollments and the concomitant shrinkage in public enrollments as parents move their kids from the Horace-Mann-model Plan A (which, up through the ’50’s, functioned remarkably well, a whole ‘nother subject) to the, in Vermont, Winhall-model Plan B. Local example: Middlebury HS enrollments now at 619, down from 658 last year, part of a long-term decline from, long ago, in the 800’s and now officially projected for further shrinkage. Only part of it can be explained by demographic aging.

The rest can be explained by parental choice, either residential –the large numbers for age 25-44 out-migration, presumably job-based, modestly over-balanced by empty-nester/retiree/trust-funder in-migration, so State population still shows overall slight annual growth, while K-12 enrollments show annual shrinkage; or educational –away from the public-ed model and to the private- or home-based model. Those leaving the State for economic or social reasons take their school-age kids with them; those moving in have fewer or none. For educational choice, the stats on a national basis (some State Ed Departments, Vermont for example, claim they “don’t know” when asked about non-public or home-schooling numbers) are available from the US Dep’t of Education, which now has a specific Office of Non-Public Education. Some data highlights: from 1970 to 2008, public enrollment grew from 46 Million (MM) to 50 MM or 9%, while private grew from 5MM to 6MM or 20%. Comparing percentages from sharply-different size groups is statistically chancy, and a better comparison is private-as-%-of-total, 5MM of 51MM or 10% in 1970, compared to 6MM of 55MM or 11% in 2008 . Home-schooling at 1.5 MM now should be counted in but can’t be, because we have no 1970 number. Anecdotal evidence –for example, Middlebury now has a handful of private-ed options it didn’t have in 1970– suggest that Vermont is among those States showing higher percentage moves away from public ed (it’s is near-the-top in State ranking for public enrollment shrinkage) than other States. That’s another “irony” for the Ed Commissioner to consider: public ed loss of market share on his watch. Maybe he should read up on Adam Smith and Caroline Hoxby.