What does Shumlin’s call for school choice mean?

by Rob Roper

“Gov. Peter Shumlin says every Vermont child should be able to attend the public school of his or her choice, regardless of where the student lives…. Shumlin said he’ll urge lawmakers next year to adopt legislation guaranteeing universal public school choice,” according to an August 10 article in the Rutland Herald.

Is he serious?

John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute has seen the many sides of Shumlin on this issue. “In 1997 during the debate on Act 60, Senator Jeb Spaulding offered an amendment which was statewide public and secular independent school choice,” McClaughry recounted. “Any parent could take his kid to any public school or non-religious affiliated independent school and have the sending town send a fixed amount of money set by statute (a substantial chunk of the tuition). It passed the senate 18-12. Peter Shumlin voted for it. Including independent schools.”

Shumlin’s current proposal would exclude independent schools. Spaulding’s amendment was subsequently killed by the house.

But, fast forward to 2001 and the story continues. “When EAI put out our School Children First proposal,” said McClaughry, “three Democratic Senators called a news conference to absolutely denounce the idea. The three senators were Cheryl Rivers, Dick McCormack, and Peter Shumlin.”

The three took turns raging about the iniquity of letting parents choose where their kids go to school. McClaughry quoted Shumlin from a Ruthlad Herald story by Jack Hoffman, “If School Children First were to be implemented, it would set up a system where we removed the children from the public school system and create a fee-for-all free-for-all that would benefit the wealthy and leave the rest to survive.”

This lack of consistency on the issue has many in the school choice movement wondering if any sincerity lies behind the proposal, and what political calculations are motivating Shumlin’s move.

Rep. Greg Clark (R-Vergennes), chair of the House School Choice Caucus

Shumlin has said that school choice where it already exists in 91 Vermont towns is a barrier to school district consolidation, and giving all towns school choice would remove that barrier. However, to do so without violating the Brigham supreme court decision, Shumlin’s school choice program would either have to include non-religious independent schools for all towns, or eliminate that choice from all towns. Shumlin has said he would not include independent schools, but would not take it away from towns that have it already. That is not likely to fly with the courts.

Rep. Greg Clark (R-Vergennes) is chair’s the House School Choice Caucus. “I’ve offered several bills over the years that I’ve been in the legislature on school choice. There are some that think I’ve gone too far because I’ve included the religious school option in there… But I think it’s important — in this day and age especially — it’s important to say that the most important thing we do as a state is to educate our kids. And, if that’s true, then is seems as though parents and students ought to be free to have an option” of choosing the best educational environment for their children.

Clark, a non-union public school teacher, sees potential in school choice to increase parental involvement in their children’s education, create better outcomes overall, and reduce costs for taxpayers. To achieve those kinds of results, independent schools will need to be included. “I think it would be a mistake to leave the independent schools out of it. They’re a big part of the Vermont Education system… and by all reports they’re in fact doing a good job. So let’s remember, if – if, which is what we hear all the time – if the importance of education is that it’s all about the kids, let’s make sure that we don’t drop what’s best for the kids from consideration in a school choice bill.”

McClaughry agrees. “Most parents want to put their kids into a school that has high standards, has a moral climate, possibly religious instruction, no invasive questionnaires, and no bullying. They want to go to an independent school. They don’t want to go to some other public school… By and large, public school choice has been a flop.”

Clark is also unsure of what the governor is thinking with this proposal. “In all fairness, shortly after he was elected an inaugurated, the governor did say to me, you bring me a good school choice bill and I’ll favor it. Now,” Clark continued with his tongue in his cheek, “I haven’t heard from him on the one that I presented to the legislature (which is perfectly fine), but I have been, ever since those comments came out in the newspaper, sitting pretty close to my phone to hear from the governor to see how he’d like me to get that written up. I haven’t heard from him.”

The fact that Shumlin hasn’t reached out to supporters of school choice like Clark, or opponents of school choice like the Vermont NEA (Shumlin’s remarks appear to have caught the Vermont NEA by surprise, and they were not amused) is causing speculation that there is no substance whatsoever to his remark.

Another theory is that Shumlin just wants to get on the right side of the issue with the public, who according to polls overwhelmingly support school choice, knowing full well that the initiative will go nowhere with his Democrat controlled legislature in hopes of taking school choice off the table as a Republican issue in 2012.

Greg Clark sees a positive opportunity either way. “I think it’s good that the governor has brought this to our attention. Maybe the discussion will move forward at least a little bit if the governor is in favor of it. So, for that reason alone,… I’m glad he made his feelings public.”