By Deborah Bucknam
Vermont has an opportunity to be the first in the nation to enact a constitutional amendment that will enshrine in our constitution equal educational opportunity for Vermont’s kids. The Vermont General Assembly this year has passed a constitutional amendment which provides a model for the Kids First amendment. Proposal 5, the “reproductive liberty” amendment to Vermont’s constitution, proposes that giving women the unlimited right to abortion will ensure “equal protection and treatment under the law and upholding the right of all people to dignity, independence, and freedom.”
While I strongly disagree with the Proposal 5 because the right to life of an innocent child is involved, it is heartening that Progressives are showing a concern for individual liberty and a recognition that it is “critical to ensuring equal protection and treatment under the law.” This same concern for liberty and recognition of the critical role liberty plays in promoting equal protection for all citizens now ought to extend to parents’ right to choose the best education for their children.
The United States Supreme Court and the Vermont Supreme Court have held that parents have fundamental constitutional rights regarding the care and nurture of their children, but those rights have been steadily eroded by government rules and regulations which purport to protect the “best interests of the child,” but too often reflect government’s pretensions — backed up by coercive government power — that they, not parents, know best how to raise their children. If Vermont lawmakers believe that parents are trusted with the most profound and fraught decision as to whether to terminate the life of their unborn child, then those parents surely can be trusted to choose the education that is best for their children.
Therefore lawmakers should pass in the next legislative session a proposal for a Vermont Constitutional Amendment patterned after the abortion rights amendment giving parents the liberty to choose the appropriate education for their children.
In our present education system, children and parents are not afforded equal treatment under the law. In 1997, in Brigham v. State, the Vermont Supreme Court, in deciding Vermont’s funding scheme violated the Vermont constitution, stated: “Labels aside, we are simply unable to fathom a legitimate governmental purpose to justify the gross inequities in educational opportunities evident from the record. The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child’s residence. It requires no particular constitutional expertise to recognize the capriciousness of such a system.”
Despite the Court’s efforts to equalize educational opportunity, there is still a gross disparity in educational opportunity for Vermont’s school children. A kindergartner with an educational impediment is bullied by another resulting in such severe emotional trauma that she cannot attend school — leaving her parents with no choice but to home school. A gifted child is not provided with math education because he is already so far ahead of his peers — but his parents are left with sending him to the only school he is allowed to attend, or move. A boy is not required to attend class in a basic subject because his teachers do not have the time or interest to teach him in a way he can learn. These are real Vermont children who have been stuck in monopoly public schools that not only do not fit their needs, but are downright harmful to their education. Countless Vermont children do not want to go to school because they are teased, bullied, ignored or bored. Others with unique abilities or learning methods are not given the opportunities to pursue their special talents or learn in their unique way.
Because of the “fortuity” of their residence, they are required to attend a monopoly school which does not provide the equal educational opportunity the Vermont Supreme Court envisioned.
Thirty percent of Vermont School districts provide for full or partial school choice. So the privileged in this state can afford to send their children to the independent school that fits their children’s needs, or to move to a choice district. And many do. The children of the less fortunate are not afforded that same educational opportunity as the privileged in Vermont.
This constitutional amendment will clarify Vermonters’ unrestricted right to choose the education that is best for their children. The abortion amendment passed the General Assembly states: “ The core value reflected in Article 7 [of the Vermont Constitution] is that all people should be afforded all the benefits and protections bestowed by the government, and that the government should not confer special advantages upon the privileged. This amendment would reassert the principles of equality and personal liberty reflected in Articles 1 and 7 and ensure that government does not create or perpetuate the legal, social, or economic inferiority of any class of people.”
This sentiment applies with even greater force to an “educational liberty” constitutional amendment. Allowing every parent to choose the best education for their children will ensure the government cannot perpetuate the legal, social or economic inferiority of any Vermonter.
The benefits of such an equal educational opportunity amendment to our children is immeasurable. But there are other benefits which will follow for our state as well:
- Our demographic decline has a chance to reverse course. Think of it: the first state in the country to have universal school choice would attract people from all over the country, and bring in a more diverse population. Black and Hispanic parents are the most enthusiastic supporters of school choice, and Vermont will be able to attract those young families who want an education that best suits their children.
- Local communities would be empowered to establish or reform their local schools to attract students with unique offerings and school culture. This is not a new idea: 19th century Vermont saw an organic growth of, first, common schools, then Academies, founded and supported by local communities across the state. The result: an explosion of education and literacy. In contrast, today’s educational system has stagnated, and even declined, for the last fifty years despite the enormous resources that have poured into the educational establishment.
- Power would revert from the all-powerful educational establishment located in Montpelier back to parents and local communities
Make no mistake, however unlike the abortion rights amendment, which was backed by some of most powerful lobbyists in the state, the educational liberty constitutional amendment will be opposed by those same powerful entrenched interests, and many more, including the hundreds of union and government bureaucrats whose jobs depend on keeping the educational status quo. Because their livelihood and their power are at stake, they will fight fiercely with all their wealthy resources behind them. Their underlying message will be: they know what is best for your children, not you.
Despite the powerful opposition, this educational liberty amendment could pass if, in 2020, we elect representatives and senators to our General Assembly who have compassion for our kids and courage to buck the powerful in Montpelier. Vermonters have rebelled against the powerful before, and now is the time to stand up and be counted on behalf of our children.
Deborah Bucknam is a St. Johnsbury-based attorney and former Republican candidate for state attorney general.