ANNA BOARINI, Manchester Journal
MANCHESTER -- What is the best education system for the children of Vermont? A system where school choice is fostered? Or one where public schools are held to high standards and are the backbone of democracy?
Tuesday night, these and other questions were wrestled with as a part of a debate jointly-sponsored by the Ethan Allen Institute and the Public Assets Institute, two think tanks based in northern Vermont. The debate focused on the two different school systems in Vermont: the public school system present in many towns, and the idea of school choice, where a town will provide tuition for children to attend the school they want.
To argue for the side of school choice was Daren Houck, headmaster of The Mountain School at Winhall until July 1, when he takes over as headmaster of The Lyndon Institute and Robert Roper, president of The Ethan Allen Institute. On the side of public schools was Paul Cillo, founder, president and executive director of the Public Assets Institute and author of Act 60 and William "Bill" Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, and a former Vermont school superintendant.
The debate, moderated by Andrew McKeever, managing editor of The Manchester Journal, asked the panelists to answer the question: How should Vermont school districts use public funds for their childrens’ education: operate community public schools or pay tuition for their children to attend a public or private school?
The side of school choice opened the debate.
Roper said the 150 year old system of school choice in 93 towns is unique to the state.
"Vermont is unique -- we have a publicly funded education system with two distinct branches," he said.
Roper stressed that education should not be looked at like a system, instead thinking of it as a goal of having an educated public. Choice, he said, empowers children.
"I’m not here to say that government run schools are bad...the critical factor is choice," he said.
Houck said he wanted to bring to the conversation about school choice an idea of what is equitable and what is socially just in education. Vermont, along with Wisconsin, he said, are the only two states in the union who have met the 90 percent graduation rate.
"Both states," he said, "have extensive school choice."
Houck said the world that we live in has changed and now the, education has to change as well.
Cillo said in his opening statement that education is what keeps communities and citizens strong. Education, he said, is specifically mentioned in Vermont’s constitution as a civic requirement.
"We assert that the best way to provide high quality education, to every Vermont child," he said, "is through the operation of democratically governed, public schools through out the state."
Over 96 percent of Vermont children are educated in public schools. School choice, Cillo said, grew out of rural areas unable to build a public school on their own, and sending children to nearby schools.
"Now, this long tradition has been retrofitted into the context of a ... national debate, a debate where private interests are seeking to end public schools," he said. "[Public schools] guarantee democratic control and equal access to all students."
He said that real choice for school only comes with strong community public schools, power over funding and that real choice only exists with public schools.
After the opening remarks, both sides were able to give a rebuttal to what the opposing side said, as well as ask each other questions.
"I just want to make it clear we are not against the public education system," Houck said, in his rebuttal. "We just believe in options. We want to work together."
He said the research shows that independent or private schools tend to do better in terms of students achievement and parent involvement.
Houck said that unlike what the opposing side said, independent schools are not just private entities that are looking to make money. They too, have a budget process that requires them to be fiscally conservative.
He also rebutted their assertion that school choice segregates students.
"Research doesn’t show that at all, it actually shows the opposite," he said. "School choice increases minority student enrollment. Public education on the other hand, shows us, on the other hand, the white and black schools."
Mathis took care of the rebuttal for the public assets institute. He said that private interests, like independent schools, only have their eye on the money spent on education and not your best interests or the interest of your town.
He has spent his life as an education researcher and finds that, unlike what Houck asserts, there is segregation in school choice.
"Our findings are unequivocal, and anybody who does this kind of research knows, they segregate by race, they segregate by income," he said. He said privatizing schools has the effect of disempowering our parents and citizens.
The question and answer session saw the panelists answering both questions from each other and the audience members.
"If the Vermont public education system were to be structured the way you would like it, would all Vermont communities privatize the public schools?" Cillo asked.
Both Roper and Houck answered by stressing the importance of universal school choice, which helps create better and more options for families, as well as stronger schools.
Before asking their question, Houck read aloud the beginning of Act 60, the Vermont education law that changed how schools are funded.
"Why are you seeking to limit and redact our current laws and freedoms that provide local communities the power to do what they feel is best for their children?" he asked.
Mathis responded by calling Houck’s question a "false dichotomy" and phrased the questions the way he believed it should have been asked.
"Why should we turn over our democracy to a group of people who are not elected and have charge of money?" he asked. "Public money must be publicly accountable."
Finally, following closing arguments from each panel, the floor was opened for questions from the audience.
"Will Vermont children have access to public schools provided a steady number of those children continue to choose an independent school option?" an audience member asked.
Cillo said that there has been repeated reference to the 93 towns that provide school choice. However, they only represent 4 percent of students.
"Where public funds are used to support k through 12 education, fewer than 4 percent of the children go to private schools," Cillo said. "It is a very small number."
An audience member spoke up and asked the panel from the Public Assets Institute what they were worried about.
Another question asked if all Vermont children had school choice, wouldn’t schools have to turn kids away? Is there a scalable plan?
Houck said such a system would be scalable because public schools would still exist. There is an opportunity for both types of schools to get a chance to better serve students.
"School choice will continue to push us down that road where each school becomes more unique, tailored to the individual students needs, as our world completely turns upside down," he said.