The Camel’s Nose

That tent feels a lot less roomy now, doesn’t it?

Here’s the problem with “school choice.” It siphons money away from the public school system, which is a bedrock of community life. America’s commitment to providing an education to every child is one of the greatest expressions of our ideals.

When you start opening the to school choice, the money can seem insignificant — like that camel’s nose in your tent. But sooner or later, other parts of the camel will join the party. Eventually, you’ll find yourself outside your tent looking in.

Case in point from across the river: New Hampshire’s new “education freedom accounts” program. It’s billed as a way to help lower-class families send their kids to private school. When it was proposed, Education Commissioner (and failed gubernatorial candidate) Frank Edelblut told state lawmakers the cost of the program would be minimal. He estimated that less than three dozen students would take part. The Legislature swallowed it whole, budgeting $129,000 for the first year of the program.

Just a little nose. Nothing to worry about.

Well, that was obvious bullshit. I mean, if the new program would only attract a handful of participants, why even have the program in the first place? The implementation and management costs would be way out of proportion.

Turns out that Edelblut was either lying through his teeth or dead wrong. The number of participating families in the program’s first year will be north of 1,000, perhaps as high as 1,500. That means the “education freedom” program will cost the state, not $129,000, but as much as $7 million.

As the head of the New Hampshire NEA noted, if a public school system committed that kind of fiscal miscalculation, heads would roll. Edelblut’s is still firmly attached.

This is looking more and more like the future of education in Vermont. Two years ago, Education Secretary Dan French produced a “planning memo” that outlined a radical restructuring of the public school system, including unfettered school choice. As has been the case with other forays into deep conservatism, the administration has never followed through on this — presumably because it knows such a plan would never pass muster in the Legislature.

But it exists nonetheless. Given the political impossibility of radical change, the administration has been taking piecemeal steps in the direction of choice. More recently, federal court decisions have opened the door to public support for private schools, including religious schools. And a number of Vermont lawsuits are pushing to remove limits on school choice.

The nose is pushing into the tent. In New Hampshire, the camel promised that the intrusion would be minuscule… until it was too late.

A bit of school choice here and there doesn’t pose a threat to the fiscal stability of public schools. But a lot of school choice would impoverish the public education system. And honestly, Vermont already has a lot of it. There are roughly 90,000 school-age children in the state. Roughly 10% of them go to private schools, with tuition underwritten by tax dollars. In 2018, the state paid $40 million in tuition to private schools. Makes Edelblut’s Blunder look modest by comparison.

And if court rulings uphold school choice, that will only be the beginning.

On the micro level, school choice sounds like a good thing. Why shouldn’t each parent get to decide where their children would get the best education? Why should kids’ futures be at the mercy of their local schools?

But on the macro level, the system only works if everyone buys in. It’s a public commons kind of thing: a valued resource is shared among all community members. No person can choose freely how they use the resource; in return, they get access to a resource they couldn’t create on their own.

The post-Reagan age has been all about privatizing the public common. It’s about valuing individual freedom above communal well-being. Every step we take in that direction weakens the fabric of our society.

I’m not advocating pure communism, with all property subject to sharing. I’m saying we need a healthy balance between individual opportunity and communal responsibility. Public schools are a commitment we make to our community. My partner and I don’t have kids, but we willingly pay our property taxes because we realize the value of a good public education. I don’t want to see our state’s commitment to public schools to be weakened any further.


9 thoughts on “The Camel’s Nose

  1. H Brooke Paige

    Nothing has done more harm to the support for public schools in Vermont that the consolidation of schools under Act 46. In town after town the community has lost its avise and consent function in the education of their children – a clear violation of Vermont’s Constitution, chapter 2 section 68.

  2. Steve Karcher

    Of the 10% and $40M going to privates in VT, how much is for students living in areas where there is no public school? Doesn’t that make a difference, or are you suggesting that in the absence of tuitioning such students to local private schools there would suddenly be quality public schools popping up in those towns, regardless of size?

      1. Annette Smith

        I have interviewed prospective college students in my area for 20 years. Because I am one of the only interviewers in southern Vermont, I’ve interviewed students from high schools in Putney, Brattleboro, Bennington, Newfane, Manchester, Dorset, Clarendon, West Rutland, Middlebury and recently I interviewed a Hinesburg student. These are some of the brightest students in their high schools, all very impressive. I learn a lot about the students and also about their high schools as part of the interview process (I’ve used the same set of questions for 20 years, though the lockdown caused me to add some). Meeting them gives me hope for the future.

        While it is clear that these students are all getting a fine education, there is one high school that stands out far above the rest in the quality of education they are receiving: Burr & Burton, a private high school in Manchester that is part of the school choice for area towns that do not have their own high school. When you talk about standards for public schools, I have not seen any evidence that the private high school has lower standards.

        I am not taking a position on school choice, just reporting what I have seen in response to your comment that implies that private schools may have lower standards than public schools. Or maybe you are implying that school choice shouldn’t be allowed for private schools that have higher standards than public schools. I have no idea if Burr & Burton’s standards are different from Mill River which is a public high school option for students in my town. All I know is that the end result from Burr & Burton is most impressive.

        My town does provide bussing for Burr & Burton students.

        As for students from different social groups, Burr & Burton has foreign students, as I interviewed a Chinese student, so I’m not sure the students are missing out on social diversity.

  3. Eric Hutchins

    Exactly. In Vermont this will manifest through transportation inequality. Wealthy parents with only one full-time working parent or flexible work hours will use the vouchers to drive their children to well-funded public-private schools in Chittenden County or other higher income areas while the poor and middle class will only be able to send their children to local public schools that provide busing. As more and more of the upper crust find their kids in these exclusive schools, legislative and local interest in passing school budgets and funding education wanes, as does parent involvement in the PTA, recreation committee, and school fund-raising. Pretty soon we have communities split between “our kids” and “those kids.” Worst of all the kids miss out on the very valuable experience of working and learning with other students from different classes and social groups. The strength of our public school system in Vermont is that nearly everyone attends the local, public school and everyone is interested in it’s well-being and success.

  4. Walter Carpenter

    “It’s about valuing individual freedom above communal well-being. Every step we take in that direction weakens the fabric of our society.”

    It’s not so much individual freedom as the freedom of a few at the expense of the rest of us which this school choice horse crap is doing to isolate us and keep us apart with our money so that the oligarchs can control us better.

  5. H. Jay Eshelman

    Re: “Here’s the problem with “school choice.” It siphons money away from the public school system, which is a bedrock of community life.”

    The problem is believing independent schools and homeschool parents aren’t the bedrock of their communities. The problem is the people who think the public school ‘system’ is more important than the disadvantaged parents and children who are forced to pay for and attend it. The ‘public school system’ is a corrupt monopoly with a one-size-fits-all metric. Merit based programs are discouraged. The monopoly consumes more money per student than virtually any other K-12 school system in the world. Meanwhile, fifty percent of its graduates don’t meet grade level standards.

    And all the supporters of the monopoly care about is preventing parents from choosing to spend their well-earned tax dollars at alternative public and independent schools that truly do have “the very valuable experience of working and learning with other students from different classes and social groups”.

    Not only is School Choice a reasonable alternative to the corrupt public-school monopoly, it is the single most important civil rights issue that will benefit those disadvantaged families the monopoly is failing today.

  6. H. Jay Eshelman

    Consider these one or two more points of disagreement with John’s contentions.

    Re: “I’m saying we need a healthy balance between individual opportunity and communal responsibility. Public schools are a commitment we make to our community.”

    This is a classic false dichotomy. The ‘commitment’ we make is not to ‘public schools’ but to public education funding to insure a ‘free and appropriate’ educational opportunity to all of Vermont’s children. In fact, 90 of Vermont’s school districts already provide School Choice Tuition Vouchers allowing parents to choose the education programs they believe best meet the needs of their children. And there are a couple of current lawsuits against the State ‘system’ rightfully claiming that allowing some parents the opportunity to choose the ‘appropriate’ education for their children, and not allow all parents the same choice, offends the ‘equal protection’ tenants in the U.S. Constitution.

    And if anyone needs proof Vermont’s education system cares more about the money than it does the children, consider this recent report in VT Digger.

    ”At a meeting on Wednesday, members of the state board made clear what secession might entail, including providing for such services as special education, transportation, and financial and data management — alone.”

    “Instead, board members suggested they favored Secretary of Education Dan French’s proposal: to simply make Ripton, whose enrollment hovers around 40 students, its own supervisory district, which would make it entirely responsible for such services.”

    Oh… okay. Let them eat cake. Even though Ripton citizens faithfully pay their education taxes, Mr. French and his State Board would withhold a portion of that funding because Ripton prefers to have a school that’s independent from the one-size-fits-all failures of the current monopoly.

    This is how monopolies operate. Will Ripton’s State Education Property Tax assessment be proportionately decreased when they are “… entirely responsible for such services”? If the Vermont Agency of Education were a private provider and pulled a similar stunt, it would be busted for anti-trust violations in short order.

    Make no mistake. The public education monopoly is corrupt, and the only way to give the power back to citizens is to provide School Choice Tuition Vouchers to every Vermont family.


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