A Debate for Vermont: Is ‘public vs. private school’ a false dichotomy?

Editor’s note: This is Part 6 in our Debate for Vermont Series.

By Jay Eshelman

After reading the recent VTDigger article “Public vs. private schools: The great ed funding debate continues”, I have to ask: Is this another false dichotomy? After all, education is an immensely more dynamic concept than a school choice between public and private institutions.

The debate over the funding and governance of these schools appears to be a sleight of hand by the education establishment, both public and private. It’s the same way a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, or a pickpocket lifts a wallet. Why, for example, is homeschooling, online schooling, public-private school collaboration, or a school-to-business internship never mentioned? Why is the discussion always about the education establishment’s public vs. private schools, and the legislators and special interest groups who enable them?

Bruce Parker/TNR

Parents in rural areas of Vermont are permitted to send kids to private or independent schools of their choice, including schools such as the Lyndon Institute, using taxpayer funding, set at about $15,500 per student. By contrast, the state spends about $22,000 per student for public schools.

This good cop, bad cop routine works because we humans are susceptible to what is called a “fear-then-relief response.” First, the education establishment complicates the process beyond what the average voter, parent or student understands in the limited amount of time they have to consider things like the budget, the curricula and the law.

Then the establishment creates nuanced false dichotomies as if they are the only existing alternatives: Private schools take “public” money from public schools (false). Public schools must accept all students while private schools don’t (false). Public schools are locally controlled (false). Private schools aren’t controlled at all (false). Private schools are all about “profit” and public schools aren’t (false). And so, it goes.

My wife and I served on public school boards over the years and our children went through the Vermont public school system. Because of school district tuitioning, we were involved with the establishment and administration of more than one private school. We played all sides, creating collaborations between public, private and customized personal programs. It can be done.

Make no mistake — the private school establishment thrives on the dysfunction of public schools, perceived and real. Private schools implicitly cherry-pick their students because the parents and students who choose them are pre-selected by the process. Private school parents and students, tuitioned or otherwise, are, for the most part, motivated by their autonomy and/or affluence, a lesson curiously ignored by public school administrators.

Concurrently, the public school establishment pushes the false narrative of equality, even though there’s nothing equal about education, apart from one’s lawful equal access to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) as prescribed by statute, whatever the FAPE may be. Ironically, the current education system provides anything but equal access. Instead, the public school establishment changes the narrative from “equal access,” as specified in our statutes, to “equal outcome.” Do the two narratives mean the same thing? No! Equal access is possible, but equal outcome is impossible.

Does your hair hurt? It’s supposed to. By now most of the electorate is saying to itself, “Enough already, just make sure my kids can go to school tomorrow because I have to go to work in the morning.” The education establishment (public and private) goes on its way. Academic performance continues to decline because the lowest common denominator is the only result possible with “equal outcome” pedagogy, and costs continue to increase because the education monopoly allows no alternatives or competition.

So, what’s the answer? I always reply, “School choice vouchers.” But I see now that the term “school choice” is a confusing and stigmatized misnomer, gamed by the education establishment on both sides. It has us falling into the good cop, bad cop ruse. This debate should have less to do with choosing a school and more to do with parents choosing a personal education plan for their children.

A personal education plan can include a single traditional public school setting, a private school setting, an à la carte education program set up with academic credits or some combination thereof (much the same way college students set up their classes in their chosen college major). And parents should be provided a scholarship to pay for their children’s personal education plan program in an amount the statewide voting electorate deems reasonable (similar to the way Pell Grants are used to pay college tuition).

Why statewide? Well, we have the Brigham vs. State of Vermont decision with which to contend, and if Vermont’s electorate believes subsidizing its children’s education is reasonable, from whatever the funding source, it should provide equal access by way of equal dollars. The existing financing system (the statewide property tax) does a pretty good job — except that access is currently restricted to a monopoly that assigns exclusive participation to certain approved private and traditional public schools at exorbitant, uncompetitive costs.

Will education costs continue to increase with personal education plan scholarships? Will academic performance continue to languish? Not likely. Putting control of a personal education plan in the hands of the parents insures that the program that best meets the needs of each child will be chosen and the education establishment (public and private) will have to contend with satisfying its market by providing the best services it can for the least cost. The us versus them perspective, private versus public and regional versus local control of contract negotiations and curricula, is removed from the political arena. The statewide electorate simply decides how much it’s willing to spend on a per student, per program or per credit basis, and the chips fall where they may.

How do we actually do this? Existing Vermont statute already specifies a methodology for secondary school classes (grades seven through 12):

16 V.S.A. § 822 (c)(1) A school district may both maintain a high school and furnish high school education by paying tuition:
(A) to a public school as in the judgment of the school board may best serve the interests of the students; or
(B) to an approved independent school or an independent school meeting education quality standards if the school board judges that a student has unique educational needs that cannot be served within the district or at a nearby public school.
(2) The judgment of the board shall be final in regard to the institution the students may attend at public cost.

Simply assign this statutory language to all grades, pre-K through grade 12. The point is that all students have “unique educational needs” and it’s time we accommodated individual students for a change, not the false choice between certain schools, public or private.

Jay Eshelman is a former school board director and business owner living in Vermont.

Image courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR

10 thoughts on “A Debate for Vermont: Is ‘public vs. private school’ a false dichotomy?

  1. Discrimination plain and simple.
    There is no school choice except that which is defined by law …. We’re not allowed to send our kids to a Christian school / directing our tax dollars where we would have them attend.

    • Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), was a 5-4 decision of the United States Supreme Court that upheld an Ohio program that used school vouchers. The Court decided that the program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment even if the vouchers could be used for private, religious schools.

      The Vermont Supreme Court, in a decidedly partisan action, ruled that tuition policy violates the Compelled Support Clause of Article 3 of the Vermont constitution. After all, how can anyone be ‘compelled’ to support religion when a parent chooses the school with a voucher only they control? The State, and its taxpayers, aren’t making the choice. The parents are.

      Federal PELL Grants are used by students to attend religious affiliated colleges every day. Take Notre Dame, for example. This is precisely the point made by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case.

      In Zelman the court stressed that the parents in Cleveland had a variety of nonreligious choices, including options among public schools. Accordingly, the court characterized the funding through the Cleveland voucher plan as offered to a broad class of people, not just to those seeking religious schools. Further, the court noted that the program did not offer financial incentives that would encourage parents to select a religiously affiliated school over a secular institution. For those reasons, the court held that the program was not in violation of the establishment clause and reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

  2. Private schools do not select the students.
    Parents select the private schools for their children.
    The private schools exist because they are needed.

    I remember my sister from the Netherlands registering her two children at a public school in New Jersey.

    She took one look and within a few minutes her mind was made up.
    She registered her children at the nearest Montessori school.

    One obtained a masters in engineering from Rutgers University, on full scholarship, the other went to Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Duke University, became a cardiologist, all on full scholarship.

    That would have never happened had they not gone to Montessori school in their early years.

    Parents want to do what is best for their children.
    Unfortunately, public schools are adverse to at least a significant percentage of children.

    • Re: “Private schools do not select the students.”

      I didn’t say they did, Willem. I said that the act of choosing a private school is implicit ‘cherry picking’. I know several private school administrators who resist the expansion of school choice tuitioning because those affluent families who are already motivated to attend and can afford them will have to compete with a wider less affluent and sophisticated demographic that may be motivated simply because they have a tuition voucher.

      And with comprehensive school choice tuitioning, public schools will learn to compete by improving their services and lowering their costs or disappear. As bad as public schools are now, we all know that free market competition will work its magic.

      And don’t get hung up on bricks and mortar. Centralized school buildings are becoming obsolete for many reasons. There are many more innovative ways to educate children than pitting private schools against public schools and restricting the choices to them in the process.

      • Jay,

        In the Netherlands, public schools also are second rate.
        Parents can chose the school, and state tuition goes to the school.
        I went to a private school, as did my sisters.

        My one sister was in total shock regarding what she saw in the public school in New Jersey.
        Immediately she registered her children in a Montessori school. The rest is history.

        Had she registered her children in a Dutch equivalent of a Montessori school, state tuition would have gone to the school.

        As a result the Dutch public schools do have mostly second rate, less academically inclined students, but the outcomes of the overall system (with a variety of higher level schools) are far above average in the world, which usually translates to having a higher quality of life and a high standard of living.

        Trying to remedy the US public school system to Dutch levels would not be economical. The sooner all folks agree on that, the sooner proper solutions will be found.

        • Again Willem, I’m not arguing your experience with public schools. Mine is similar. I’m saying that some private school administrators and staff support the current restrictions on tuitioning because limiting tuition access to those who can afford the choice and are compelled to act on that choice, as was your sister, effectively prequalifies their enrolled families to those who are motivated and affluent…a demographic proven to excel economically, academically and behaviorily.

          School Choice Tuitioning of Personal Education Plans (PEPs) will level the playing field for everyone, whether they choose a public school, a private school, homeschool, online education and/or the various collaborations an innovative education environment allows. The choices should not be restricted to private vs. public schools.

          • Jay,

            “effectively prequalifies their enrolled families to those who are motivated and affluent…a demographic proven to excel economically, academically and behaviorally.”

            All parents should have the right to prequalify their children and enroll them in ACCREDITED private schools best suited for their children.

            The money the state and local government would have sent to a public school should automatically, and immediately, and unconditionally, go to that ACCREDITED private school.

            If that were done, a much large percentage of Vermont students would be in these private schools and that LARGER percentage would be excelling economically, academically and behaviorally, and that would have a beneficial impact on all of society.

            That approach is recognized in the Netherlands, etc, with excellent results, locally and internationally.

            Instead, the apologists for the dysfunctional US system, ranking about 25th in the world, want to have BAU, which has by now been proven to yield unsatisfactory outcomes AT VERY HIGH COSTS PER STUDENT.

          • Re: “All parents should have the right to prequalify their children and enroll them in ACCREDITED private schools best suited for their children.”

            Indeed! But most parents don’t for a variety of reasons, including money and motivation, not to mention that the public school monopoly intimidates them into believing they have no choices.

            And that is precisely what some elite private schools bank on. Some, not all, are in on the charade.

            I think everyone should have the right to choose whatever school they think does best for their kids and the State should subsidize that choice equally.

            Willem, your making the point to my missive in that you’re being distracted by the diversion of a private v. public schools dialogue. Not only should parents have the right to choose any school, they should have the right to choose any education program that may or may not be affiliated with a given school. I know several Homeschooled kids, for example, who are miles ahead of their contemporaries in public and private school. All education options should be on the table.

  3. Where I now live, we have School Choice and a plethora of magnet schools to choice from. I’m very happy with the choices we are allowed for our children as they progress in the our public school system. Once my kids are of high school age I can then send them to a high school that is tailored towards their interest, be it marketing, math, engineering, just to name a few. We have entire schools geared towards certain strengths that the child may have. One of my kids is considered academically gifted, she is offered either accelerated classes in the school she is in now, in math and reading, or entrance to entire school for the academically gifted. No such option was offered to us in Vermont.

    We are reminded as the end of the year approaches by the school district ( my kids last day of school was this past Friday) that if you want to apply for any of the magnet schools now is the time to apply. It’s all a very easy process and best of all I get my pick from ANY school in the district. All that I need to do it get my child to the nearest school and the district will bus them to the school of the parents choice.

    I understand that having parents decide what’s best for their children is a foreign concept to the VTNEA , but I can assure you that it really is nice to not be under the tyranny of the VTNEA and it’s monopoly over not only the education system in Vermont but the parents as well. Sadly most folks in Vermont don’t know how badly they’re being strong armed.

    • Re: “…the district will bus them to the school of the parent’s choice.”

      This is an important point. Transportation is not an education issue. School districts transport kids to all sorts of schools, public, magnate, charter (if we had any) and private. In my district, not only does the school district transport kids to alternative schools in district buses, I see kids using The Current, southeastern Vermont’s public transit company. After all, using tuition vouchers doesn’t mean the kids have to walk to school.

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