McClaughry: Expanding parental choice in education

By John McClaughry

This year and the ensuing biennium are likely to be landmark years for the future of parental choice in education in Vermont.

In June 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana that if a state offers education tax credits, it must offer them to students choosing sectarian schools as well as public schools. The court said that excluding sectarian schools burdened the plaintiffs’ right to the free exercise of their religion.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

That ruling triggered at least three similar cases by Vermont plaintiffs seeking to use state tax dollars to benefit their children in independent and sectarian schools.

The Valente case argues that parents in tuition towns (Mount Holly) should be able to have their school districts pay their children’s tuition directly to a religious school (Mount St. Joseph Academy). Last month parents filed another suit (Williams) to require Barstow Unified Union District to pay tuition for two children attending the same Roman Catholic school.

Another case from Glover argues that if any student is allowed to take school district tuition funding to a sectarian school, then all students, not just tuition town students, should also enjoy that “common benefit.” Meanwhile, a very similar case (Carson v. Makin) has made its way from Maine to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held oral argument in December.

But the government school lobby is urging the Legislature to put a stop to what could be a costly hemorrhage of students — and money — out of public schools. The four defenders of government schooling are the Vermont School Boards Association, Vermont Superintendents Association, Vermont Principals Association, and the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union.

Their Feb. 23 joint letter to the Senate Education Committee sets out their argument that expanding parental choice brings “a morass of complicated legal and logistical questions.” Their central message comes through loud and clear: Forget funding of children, “fund only public schools.”

The lobby groups anchor their case by saying that the state must give all students an “equitable, quality education in order to keep democracy thriving.” They believe that only government schools can deliver equitable, quality education. If parental choice is (regrettably) forced by the courts, non-public schools must be saddled with public school regulations controlling “curriculum, staff qualifications, open meetings and public records requirements, fiscal accountability and student assessment.”

One wonders how many Vermont parents believe that their public schools offer their children a quality product, especially when their unionized teachers are, by last year’s resolution of their national union, committed to teaching “that a person is defined above all else by race, gender and sexual orientation, and that American institutions are designed to ensure white supremacy and ‘the patriarchy.’”

What should be obvious to any parent is that when parents with effective choice find a chosen school to inadequately provide what they — the parents, not the lobby groups — think is a quality education, they can choose to send their children to another school, public, independent or religious, that does a better job.

Senate Education Chair Brian Campion, D-Bennington, is all on board with this “government experts know best, parents know little or nothing” maxim. He was quoted in True North Reports as saying “we [the government] need to put some guard rails on [the practices of religious schools] to protect the students and the staff.”

Protect the students and the staff? Really? Somebody needs to explain to Chairman Campion and his committee members that when parents have effective choice, their children don’t need to be protected by overbearing government bureaucrats working to preserve their public school near-monopoly. They can choose another school.

When public schools start losing students, they need to improve the quality of their offerings and jettison some ideological baggage to win them back. But the public school leadership wants to have the government eliminate the competition.

Wealthy parents can always send their children to St. George’s School (Howard Dean) or the Buxton School (Peter Shumlin). But the public school lobby simply can’t tolerate the state funding the children of everyone else to attend Rice Memorial.

I strongly support Vermont’s constitutional provision against compelled taxpayer support of worship, including pervasively sectarian education. Making sectarian schools dependent on public appropriations sets up a dangerous political dynamic that our Founding Fathers were well aware would be seriously divisive.

But our Constitution’s “no compelled support” clause speaks to individuals, not governments. It is satisfied when the state offers a pro rata rebate to taxpayers who object to tuition grants to faith-based schools.

Tuition grants to parents to choose what’s best for their children will force complacent public schools to respond to competition instead of coasting along untroubled by dissatisfied customers who can afford nowhere else to turn.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He was vice chair of the Senate Education Committee in 1991-92.

Images courtesy of Guy Page and John McClaughry

21 thoughts on “McClaughry: Expanding parental choice in education

  1. As a recovering Catholic, I am living testimony to the fact that parents can make disastrously foolish choices. Why should the children have to pay for their parents’ ignorance? Nobody in my high school was a Democrat until the Pope said it was okay to vote for Kennedy (well, actually, “for a Catholic for president”). Woo! Suddenly hundreds of students for Kennedy, and some of us never looked back.

    The state ought to be sure that the religious schools that take my tax money treat their employees the way all my employers had to treat me– no discrimination based on my values about birth control, health care and reading choices.

    • No. cgregory, you present classic false dichotomy and strawman fallacies.

      The first is to assume that what you learned in Catholic school was foolish, without explaining why it was so misguided to express support for JFK.

      The second is to assume that because your parents made a foolish choice (if indeed they did – which, in itself is debatable), that all parents make foolish choices. After all, you clearly learned to read and write. Considering that half the kids in public school graduate without those skills certainly doesn’t make the public schools less foolish.

      The third is to assume that only independent school parents make foolish choices and that parents (and especially teachers) in a public-school monopoly, where one size fits all, don’t make foolish choices – when, in fact, you would never know because everyone does the same thing. Instead of supporting JFK, for example, is it no less foolish to support CRT, Marxism, and transgender dysphoria to 1st graders?

      Lastly, you discount the ‘education’ you actually received by experiencing your parent’s foolishness. After all, it’s the diversity of path choices, some mistaken, some not, that teach us what works and what doesn’t.

      As Justice O’Connor expressed in her concurring opinion in Zelman v Simmons-Harris, what’s important is the ability to make choices in the first place. No one forced your parents to send you to Catholic school. And no one should be forced to attend what I consider to be the every-bit-as-indoctrinating public-school monopoly where choices are, at best, discouraged.

      • I think it’s unnecessary to go into details about the change from non-support to support of a Democrat in a theocratic educational system. I can’t educate people in one paragraph.

        Second, I don’t know if it’s still the case, but Catholic students excelled nationally at the time for being able to recall the information they were given rather than arrive at conclusions themselves. Then and now of course, they all read and write very well.

        Third, parents make foolish choices when they don’t consider community input. There are millions of parents who wish their children had better schools, they know their schools have problems– but they also know that there is no way their child is going to get the public education available to children in wealthier suburbs, so their only option is to tough it out. Vouchers are rarely the answer, but only another neoliberal ripoff. (What they need is a community that knows how to fight for better schools. Good luck with that!)

        Fourth, it took decades of thinking my education was “normal” before I understood how fundamentally it had stultified my range of choices throughout life. “After all, it’s the diversity of path choices, some mistaken, some not, that teach us what works and what doesn’t.” A lofty sentiment that casually dismisses the bottom 50% of Americans for their way of life.

        • Re: After all, it’s the diversity of path choices, some mistaken, some not, that teach us what works and what doesn’t.” A lofty sentiment that casually dismisses the bottom 50% of Americans for their way of life.

          Please. Don’t misrepresent what I said. There is nothing casual about my observation. I’m a former public school board director, a former Workforce Investment Board member (liaison between schools and businesses), a parent of children who went through our public school system (and had the advantage of school choice in our 7th and 8th grades). And I’m an employer of these kids – who’s first hire was a local public-school graduate who couldn’t read a matchbook cover – that was 40 years ago.

          The bottom 50% of Americans are at the bottom in no small part because they didn’t have access to the so-called high performing public schools or independent schools (parochial or otherwise) that you were able to attend. That it took you decades to figure this out is your anecdotal reference. Many others figured it out very quickly but were, none the less, unable to do anything about it.

          • Mr. Eshelman~~ I recommend that you contact Springfield Area Public Access TV and view the Larry Carbonetti talk on the public perception of American education. Staff will know which one it is.

            You will see that all that time you were involved in it, you weren’t aware how much of an uphill battle you were in. But in the last forty years it’s gotten much worse. Neoliberalism has focused on converting the funds for public education (now the last remaining big pot of taxpayer money unavailable to them) into shareholder value. The average working life of those highly motivated Teach For America idealists is three years– about the same length of time it takes for a professional teacher to learn the ropes. Disillusioned, TFA workers leave for other opportunities.

            For the grifters and neoliberals to do this, Carbonetti points out, it is necessary to deprecate public schools as much as possible. He cites “A Nation at Risk,” written by Nixon’s Secretary of Education, as one of those tools– a book unsupported by any scholarly citations. He also recounts the very successful attempt by a loony millionaire to compare the supposed problems in schools in the 1940’s with those in the 1990’s. “How do you know it was like that in the 1940’s?” “I was there.”

            The end of all their efforts is to discredit educators sufficiently that parents are confused and suggestible, ready to buy the snake oil.

            But communities that value education value their teachers and the school’s needs. Carbonetti reminisced about working at one of the best public school districts in the nation: “We didn’t have a budget. Every year, my supervisor would ask me what I needed. If I thought my students would benefit from reading Tolstoy, I could ask for a book for every one of them. My department’s Resource Room was bigger than Springfield High School’s library–and that was just the English department. . . I asked him once, ‘If I asked for a car, could I get one?'”

            When teachers and education are properly valued, they are treated like the professionals they are. But American cultural values aren’t anywhere in that neighborhood.

            So, McClaughry points out that we should basically take money away from public education. Then he will argue that public education is bad, so we should take more money away from it. Of course, his paymasters expect this sort of thing from him.

          • You presume too much sir.

            First, the school board on which I served was in Springfield. I know the hills and valleys of its public education system as well as anyone.

            Second, ‘The Nation At Risk’ narrative that you claim is “a book unsupported by any scholarly citations”, has one of the most extensive appendices of educational resource citations ever assembled.

            And to say teachers would provide a better education if they were paid more is nonsense. Kids that attend independent schools, especially parochial schools, have teachers who don’t receive anything approaching the compensation of public-school teachers. Never mind the lack of compensation provided to homeschool programs. Furthermore, independent schoolteachers that don’t accept responsibility for the academic success of their students are asked to step aside. Not so in the public-school monopoly – as witnessed by the half of students who don’t achieve grade level standards with the same teachers, year in and year out.

            And that you persist in misrepresenting what’s being said in this regard is telling. Mr. McClaughry isn’t saying we should take money away from ‘public education’. What he’s accurately pointing out is that what you characterize as ‘public education’ isn’t an ‘education’ at all. Again, just consider the results. If any institution can be characterized as being replete with ‘grifters’, it’s the charade of the public-school monopoly.

        • Re: “Vouchers are rarely the answer, but only another neoliberal ripoff.”

          Most people who maintain this opinion are those with a vested interest in the public-school monopoly (Principals, Superintendents, Teachers, and the myriad social service organization stalking their prey at the great public education watering hole).

          If, and when, anyone decides they are willing to consider the evidence of peer reviewed studies on the matter, let me know. Suffice it to say, kids in school choice districts not only have better education outcomes, they have better professional experiences too.

          • There was never an Eshelman on the school board in Springfield in the last fifty years, to my knowledge. Maybe you were in another state? There’s never been a position of “school board director” here, either. But I could be wrong. What years did you serve here, and who were your board colleagues?

            There is a whole raft of stories about charter school operators ripping off public money. In my home state, two of them made off with $4 million in the middle of a school year, closing down four store-front “schools,” but it was okay with the governor, a Koch protegé. They were never pursued and extradited.

          • 1. I served on the River Valley Tech Center Board during the last year it was in the Springfield School District, through its withdrawal from the district as the RVTC formed its own school district. That was 2006-2007.

            2. Charter Schools that rip-off public money don’t last long. They reform or they are terminated. Public schools should be held to the same standard.

          • Mr. Eshelman, thanks for the clarification on your experience.

            I’m interested in your take on Finnish public education, which is one of the most highly rated in the world. Back in the 70’s Finland and the US were academically about the same, but the public responded quite differently to the challenges.

            Why not, instead of assuming public school teachers are thugs and slugs and that education has to continue to turn into an every-family-for-itself scramble, that we can make our public schools as good as Finland’s?

            No family moving into a new neighborhood in Finland has to ask “Which is the best school?” Teaching is one of the three most highly respected professions in the country, and there’s something like ten applicants for every position. Why is it different there?

          • cgregory, you continue to gaslight my perspective with false dichotomies and strawman fallacies.

            First: No one is assuming public school teachers, in the aggregate, are ‘thugs and slugs’. But I can assure you, some of them are. Why do I say that? Because I know of several children, including mine, who were targeted by politically motivated retribution from teachers because the teachers were criticized. And, of course, School Choice would eliminate that circumstance.

            Second: What’s the problem with ‘an every-family-for-itself scramble’? You don’t think they’re ‘scrambling’ now as it is?

            We can elaborate on this ‘every-family-for-itself scramble’ mentality if you like. Suffice it to say, it’s a sentiment expressed in many Marxist philosophies that falsely assume government must protect individuals from themselves. But I digress.

            The education system in Finland is, to a significant degree, exemplary. Finnish children have universal School Choice paid entirely by taxpayers. They can choose between any number of public and independent education programs regardless of where they live.

            But you are incorrect to assume Finnish parents don’t have to ask themselves “Which is the best school?” That’s precisely what School Choice in Finland lets parents do. And, in Finland, academic performance reflects that benefit.

            And yes, teaching is more appreciated in Finland because teachers earn the appreciation – as opposed to relying on a government monopoly to protect their standing. If parents don’t appreciate a teacher in Finland, they choose another. We can’t do that here.

          • Schools in Finland do not lose money when children transfer from one to another. The schools do not have to send their teachers to scrabble for dollars on a hockey rink, as was done here last month.

            It was the Finnish government back in the Fifties that decided to redesign public education. it took 20 years of wading through the same fights we are still having here, but the Finnish people created a system that nurtures all. It also relieves parents of the worry of having to find “a better school.” If or when a school has a problem, it is not punished; it is given the resources to fix the problem.

            You’ve never spent a day shadowing a second-year teacher and then the next shadowing a near-retirement high school teacher, have you? There is often quite a sad difference between the two. The first, still fresh out of college, still imbued with optimism and hope; the second, very often beaten down year after year, forced to do without the tools they know are essential, treated again and again like a barista, and knowing that the school is never going to give the students the resources they need, but feeling that at least they might light the fire under one student each year, can only count on the protection of the union as they go through the motions. Don’t get me started on standardized testing.

          • cgregory, with all due respect – your misdirection is becoming tedious.

            Re: “Schools in Finland do not lose money when children transfer from one to another.”

            Yes, they do.

            “Finland runs a national school choice system where parents and students can choose freely between the 2,600 municipal and 80 privately-managed schools and funding follows the student. As a result, about 100 municipal schools per year have closed over the past several years.”

            Furthermore, Finland doesn’t spend as much per student on average as does the U.S., kids don’t go to school until they are 7 years old (our equivalent of first grade), and there are only nine years of compulsory education.

            And while Finland schools are well regarded, they are not the be-all end-all in education. “In recent years, the Nordic country has shown a decline in performance, but Finnish students still continue to perform well above the OECD average.”

            Apples and Oranges. Finland’s population is much more homogenous than the U.S., and it has fewer than half the people as does NYC.

            But again, to get back to the point at hand – “Finland runs a national school choice system where parents and students can choose freely between the 2,600 municipal and 80 privately-managed schools and funding follows the student.”

            And, as usual, you presume too much. You have no idea how much time I’ve spent in the classroom. Suffice it to say, it’s more time than you know. And, lastly, you’re entitled to your opinion on education pedagogy. But it’s your opinion. Not mine, and not the opinion of most people I know. Which is another reason School Choice is the only form of governance that can handle that diversity of opinion.

        • Speaking of rip-offs:
          Most people who believe school vouchers are a rip-off have a vested interest in the public-school monopoly (Principals, Superintendents, Teachers, and the myriad social service organization stalking their prey at the great public education watering hole). It costs about $24 thousand to send an in-state student to Castleton University for a year of college course credits. That includes tuition, orientation fees, resource fees, AND room and board. In my Vermont elementary school district, we just passed a $4.7 million budget serving 200 kids. Do the math.

          And for this, half of them never meet grade level standards. Now that’s what I call a rip-off.

          • Per capita income in my family back then was $400 a year, which is around $3,500 adjusted to 2022 dollars. How many kids would you have today if you got paid $3,500 a head? What would family living be like for you with that many kids? Just curious.

            And of course we had to earn the money to pay for our own schooling, $180 a year. How many 14-year-olds do you know who make $1,500 picking crops and mowing lawns in the summer? Maybe times have changed…

          • What does your history have to do with the fact that we pay as much to educate one first grader as parents pay to send a student to Castleton University – including room and board?

            And the last time median household income in the U.S. was $3500+- was 1950. I was two years old. And I was working on my family’s farm several years later.

            And yes, times have changed. But the public schools haven’t.

    • Re: “The state ought to be sure that the religious schools that take my tax money treat their employees the way all my employers had to treat me– no discrimination based on my values about birth control, health care and reading choices..”

      Again, yet another false dichotomy and strawman fallacy.

      In a School Choice environment, it’s up to the parents to be sure the school they choose is law abiding. It’s already illegal to discriminate, no matter where one attends school. But when it happens in a non-choice public-school setting, and parents attend a teacher meeting or a school board meeting to express a redress of their grievance, they are now deemed to be ‘domestic terrorists’.

      At least, when that happens in a Catholic school, if the parents are sufficiently wealthy (as yours must have been), the parents can choose to send their children elsewhere. But without School Choice vouchers, most parents with children in the public-school monopoly don’t have that privilege.

    • As a recovering atheistic liberal, I am a living testimony to the fact that government can make disastrous foolish choices. Why should the citizens pay for the activists’ ignorance? Nobody in my high school was a free thinker, they only voted how their secular high priest [we call teachers] and their religious books [goverment textbooks] told them. Suddenly, some of us escaped the plantation of groupthink and never looked back.

      Parents ought to be sure their tax money is used in the way they want their kids to be treated. No discrimination based on their and their kid’s values about birth control, health care, and reading choices.

  2. One of the first SCOTUS rulings of major consequence on the effect of School Choice challenged on 1st Amendment Establishment Clause jurisprudence was Zelman v Simmons-Harris, in 2001, concerning Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program.

    In that regard, I respectfully disagree with John’s opinion on Vermont’s constitutional provision against compelled taxpayer support of worship for the reason’s elaborated upon by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurring opinion in the Ohio case.

    Of note is the duplicity in the claim that school choice vouchers compel taxpayer support of worship. As Justice O’Connor points out: federal, state, and local governments already provide support to religious institutions.

    Religious organizations may qualify for exemptions from the federal corporate income tax, the corporate income tax in many States, and property taxes in all 50 States. And clergy qualify for a federal tax break on income used for housing expenses. In addition, the Federal Government provides individuals, corporations, trusts, and estates a tax deduction for charitable contributions to qualified religious groups. Finally, the Federal Government and certain state governments provide tax credits for educational expenses, many of which are spent on education at religious schools.

    Federal dollars also reach religiously affiliated organizations through public health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, through educational programs such as the Pell Grant program, the G. I. Bill of Rights, and through childcare programs such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program.

    So, where is the complaint of compelled support for these policies?

    Justice O’Connor goes on to say that:

    “…the goal of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence is to determine whether, after the Cleveland voucher program was enacted, parents were free to direct state educational aid in either a nonreligious or religious direction.”

    And this is the critical point. Taxpayer funded school choice vouchers do not compel anyone to support a religion. The vouchers support freedom of choice. And the first amendment not only says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,”. It also says Congress shall make no law “… prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”.

    The fact that we are allowed to make personal choices on behalf of our children, while at the same time, taking advantage of the individual liberty and freedom we have by virtue of our U.S. Constitution, compels us only to protect and defend those individual inalienable rights – not prohibit them.

    I hope everyone takes the time to read Justice O’Connor’s opinion.

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