Flemming: Vermont needs school choice to fight racism

By David Flemming

While Vermont has less of a problem with racism at school than many states, it is still a problem. Recently, some Vermont “experts” have begun trying to discover ways to minimize racially based conflict at school. That sounds good, but to embrace a comprehensive perspective, we cannot afford to only invest in top-down solutions. We should put parents and children in the driver’s seat of their education and allow them to find the schools that they judge to be most amenable to each specific child’s education. School choice can be used to fight racism in Vermont schools.

Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill in 2019 with the stated goal of more “ethnic and social equity in schools.” A few months later, a 20-member Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group was formed “to develop educational standards and changes in state law aimed at creating a bias-free environment in schools, and instructional materials aimed at educating students about issues related to bias and inequality.”

Wikimedia Commons/Ardfern

If Vermont’s leaders are serious about fixing racial biases, they ought to preserve the means by which minority (or any) parents can choose for themselves which school to attend.

I was in the Vermont education system from 2006-12 from sixth to 12th grade. It seemed to me that my teachers did a good job of facilitating discussions around racial differences in a way that challenged white students to consider ways they could challenge their preconceived notions of race. But then, I was not a minority student.

Last December, a mother in her thirties (who shall remain nameless to protect the identity of her child) had a first-grade boy who was attending Cabot School. She wrote this troubling Facebook post: “It started with a sledding incident, i.e. normal playground politics, where a classmate was continually cutting in line. The responsible adult who should have been there to mediate lost control of the situation and my son pushed the other child down. He then had in-house suspension, cutting his recess short. Then he missed his computer lab time (which he adores). They left him in a room, with a blank piece of paper.”

She continues: “My son at this point is very sad/upset at this consequence. While sitting there he drew, as he usually does, a graphic scene with a chain saw and Zombies. He’s a 6-year old boy. The principal called us and deemed the drawing a “violent depiction” and treated it as a threat to the entire school. She suspended our little boy for the maximum amount they can, without calling a meeting first.”

The mother said she “believes if he was white, a 10-day suspension would not even been remotely considered.”

When I was a 6-year-old boy, I didn’t draw zombies. I drew Vikings, gun-toting villains and satanic images. I even threatened to spray Windex in a kid’s eyes when I was 7 years old. Perhaps if I had been a 6-year-old minority at Cabot School, I would have been labeled a violent delinquent who made a threat with a “gun.” Instead, I had to spend 30 minutes in a time out for the Windex incident.

How did I turn out? That initial burst of exuberant childhood creative freedom was directed into more socially acceptable means of expression later on.

Boys of all races have always done things like this. And unfortunately, it appears that minorities are more likely to be punished. As a society, we are teaching everyone “if you see something, say something.” This applies to unaccompanied luggage that has already been scanned at the airport, any unsolicited phrase that could be construed as sexual, or even violent zombie drawings. Unfair as it is, minorities will still tend to get called out for such trivial offenses.

If we assume that minorities will be punished when someone “sees something” they see as threatening and “says something” in a state that is 90% white, what is more reassuring: to hear that some really smart people are going to spend years studying an issue, or to hear that minority parents will be able to determine for themselves whether they ought to put their child in a new school, so as to receive less racially biased treatment?

I am talking about school choice. If Vermont’s leaders are serious about fixing racial biases, they ought to preserve the means by which minority (or any) parents can choose for themselves. Act 46 will make that increasingly difficult, but there are still ways it can be done if we realize how important protecting choice is.

Perhaps we could study the data behind the number of students leaving certain school for others in Vermont. If there appears to be a large number of minority students leaving one school through school choice, perhaps that is an indication of some underlying racial concerns.

No government can completely control the millions of interactions that go on across Vermont public schools throughout the day. The best learning and social interactions take place spontaneously. If we try to restrict those spontaneous interactions for fear that they will lead to something uncomfortable 0.1% of the time, we will severely stunt our children’s growth.

That’s why the best backstop for uncomfortable situations is school choice. We don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket with some “new and improved” curriculum. We can diversify into various school choice initiatives aimed at empowering children, and give them the tools they need to build themselves, and our communities, a better future.

David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ardfern
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14 thoughts on “Flemming: Vermont needs school choice to fight racism

  1. CHenry, your point about lack of discipline is very valid. In my school district, teachers aren’t allowed to discipline students. In a way it is understandable. Some teachers don’t have the training for disciplining misbehaving students. The schools fear lawsuits from parents, should a member of the faculty discipline or punish their unruly child. “No child left behind” law is part of the problem. It put children with mental issues, socializing problems, and learning disabilities into mainstream education systems. The legislation had no provisions for helping either side to adjust to one another. Subsequently, mainstream students witnessed the socially challenged ones acting out in class and being disrupting and not receiving discipline according to traditional methods. They interpreted it as being the new norm. Now there is a whole generation of children wherein many see acting out is the way of getting attention and their own way, knowing their parents can use the fear of legal prosecution of the school. I acknowledge there are a small number of teachers in my area who discipline in a very loving, caring way, with great success.
    As great as it sounds for all children to get a good education without inequalities, it will never happen. The whole thing is comprised of imperfect humans including the law and lawmakers, who BTW believe they have all the answers.
    But, allowing parents to choose any school for their children to attend, as a method to deal with racism, which is the subject of the article, is not addressing the problem. It’s like a bandaid on an infected, festering wound. Here again is the result of a “no discipline” order. Schools can’t change the way a student acts because that’s against their freedom of choice. And, it can be a result of the way their parents think and act. So, what’s the solution? Essentially, government doesn’t belong in school. There will always be poor performing students, poor performing teachers, and likewise schools. Other than certification of teachers and administrators, and verifying faculty backgrounds, government needs to back out. VT education for K-12 ranks near the bottom of the list of 50 states, proving that government involvement is ineffective. Racism is an ugly beast that loves to prey on society. It looks for the chinks in its armor. And when it finds a weak spot it enters and destroys good tissue, sowing hatred, dominance, and inequality. The Constitution says all men are created equal. Therefore, one who practices racism is logically an enemy of the Constitution and what it represents, specifically the nation. The Constitution guarantees freedoms but they aren’t without boundaries. These are the things that used to be taught in schools, along with reading, writing, and math. Which BTW aren’t being taught very well in my area schools.

    • Re: “… allowing parents to choose any school for their children to attend, as a method to deal with racism, which is the subject of the article, is not addressing the problem.”

      Yes, it is ‘addressing the problem’…by allowing parents and their children the opportunity, the ‘choice’ if you will, to avoid the problem in the first place. We may not be able to change the world. But that’s not an excuse for not changing our own, personal world when circumstances warrant the change. School Choice doesn’t guaranty perfection… only the opportunity to pursue it.

      School Choice is the preeminent civil rights issue of our time.

  2. We need to teach love and forgiveness, to not seek revenge. When you throw out timeless teachings, the Ten Commandments we go back to our own ideas which are never good.

    You can’t be racist following Jesus, countries prosper or fall depending upon who’s wisdom they follow. If we want our children to experience love , joy and peace, we’ll have to have some supplemental teachings.

    Our kids will learn nothing of value to navigate through this difficult world in the Vemont educational system, that is for sure.

    • Point of clarification: It’s not that ‘following Jesus’ doesn’t ‘teach love and forgiveness’, Neil. But there are other ways to for “our children to experience love, joy and peace’. Consider the inherent wisdom of U.S. Constitution.

      ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
      …or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’

      That includes just about anything – as long as one’s ‘the free exercise thereof’ doesn’t infringe on the ‘free exercise’ of others.

  3. Vermont should go the route of Massachusetts, choice for all, k through 12!, it works well!! Schools announce openings in each grade level in March and students from other districts apply if the numbers are greater than openings, a fair lottery! When I was on the VSBA I brought this up several times but individuals said “not fair as transportation not included” The families that got accepted to this program shared the transportation to the school border and the bus picked them up, no problem. This is the way to go! Oh the state of Massachusetts pays the receiving district $5,000.00 per student

    • There is nothing restricting a school district from providing transportation, or transportation assistance, to students choosing alternative schools. School Choice students in my district receive that assistance.

  4. I litigated this issue years ago. If a school isn’t a good fit for a student no responsible school board should shackle that student to their school. Section 822 of Title 16 gives the school board the power to let the student take their tuition to a school that is a better fit. Unfortunately, some school boards are like the Harwood Board in the case below. They care more about tuition dollars and institutional preservation than they do about what is in an individual student’s best interests.

    https://caselaw.findlaw.com/vt-supreme-court/1471566.html

    • Unfortunately, David, 16 V.S.A. § 822 applies only to students in grades 7 thru 12 who have “… unique educational needs”. And yes, of course, the argument can be made that all high school students are unique.

      But grades K-6 are governed by 16 V.S.A. § 821, which allows a board to provide a tuition voucher only due to ‘geographic considerations’. The school board governing the 1st grader at the Cabot School doesn’t have the same authority as a high school board in that regard.

      I’ve argued now for decades that 16 V.S.A. § 821 should be amended to include the same considerations provided in 16 V.S.A. § 822.

      But, hey, one step at a time. It should be noted that most school boards don’t know the education statutes governing their schools, which is understandable given that even Dan French, current Vermont Secretary Of Education, didn’t know the 16 V.S.A. § 822 law either when I last discussed it with him. Just check out: http://www.truenorthreports.com/travels-with-charlie-episode-9

      • Post Script: There are legal remedies available to parents when it can be shown that a given public school, its administrators and school boards fail to provide education services prescribed by the State Board of Education (SBOE), including but not limited to a safe environment.

        And I’ll say this yet again for those of you involved in current actions against the SBOE. Only individuals aggrieved by the actions of the public school to which their children are assigned have legal standing. School Boards in general do not have legal standing.

    • The big public education monopoly aggressively labels children as “disabled,” once a child has a label attached to them, the school district has a way to force the child to attend union staffed schools. These people do not care if a child is suffering in the one size fits all public system. The big public school monopoly cares about money, union jobs and benefits, period.

  5. I agree that school choice should be an option for parents to select the school setting that will best meet the needs of their child/children. That choice should include public, private and parochial schools and homeschooling. If you homeschool, your school property tax should be reduced. In addition, why are taxpayers funding not only lunch, but breakfast at schools?
    Schools today are trying to meet every possible need of every child at great expense to taxpayers, Vermont now has an average per pupil cost of nearly $22,000.00 versus the National cost of approximately $12,000. It is time for schools to focus on education, not indoctrination and not baby-sitting. There can be other more appropriate options to meet those needs at less cost. Let’s get back to teaching, high expectations for student learning and traditional grades so parents can know how their child is doing in school and students will have a reason to work to achieve high grades.
    Our teachers and students are trapped in a failed “education” system named Common Core. It is time to get back to the basics of achievement that stimulates learning and ensures that our Vermont
    students do not need remedial reading programs in our colleges. The State owes our teachers, students and taxpayers a real education system at reasonable cost as in many other states. Our children are the future of our nation. Let’s get to it !

    • Florida has now done away with Common Core. It’s a governmental disaster. Other states have also and more are following. They see the light and results.

      Common Core makes the answer to 2+2 to take 15 mins. What future employer would hire such mathematical concept when time is money?

  6. I do believe in school choice, it should be a parent’s decision and not some political hack
    telling you where you should send your kids, I also believe if your kids need to be bused
    from your decision, well that’s on the parents !!

    I’m not sure how much racism there is, but I have two family members in the teaching
    profession, and what is really relevant in today’s school is ” no discipline “, none and
    that’s from the Principles on down………

    I do hear stories and yes the kids form the Cities ” NY, NJ, PA ” to name a few, really like
    to throw out the ” ISM’s ” they know how to play the game and the school facility really
    reacts and not in a good way ……. pretty pathetic and the kids know it.

    I would more concerned about ” No ” Discipline than Racism kids are smarter than you
    think.

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