By Benjamin Kinsley
Executive Director, Campaign for Vermont Prosperity
Many Vermonters probably had mixed reactions to the nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary. On the one hand, she is espoused as a proponent of school choice which is prized by many of our rural communities. On the other hand, Vermont lead the country in rejection of Donald Trump last November (by 28 points). Nearly every single one of his cabinet choices have drawn criticism, but none have drawn quite the ire that DeVos has. Most of this opposition has come from teachers unions who represent public school educators, and Democrats who believe DeVos plans to gut public schools across the country. They may not be wrong.
Make no mistake, public education is what has built America and is something to cherish and protect. In fact, Vermont is a leader on this, recognizing in our state constitution the right for every child to be provided an equitable education. That being said, not all students learn well in a public school environment – just ask a parent in one of Vermont’s 93 tuitioning towns.
National research around school choice systems is mixed, likely due to the number of different models in place. “School Choice” does not mean the same thing in D.C., Arizona, or Michigan as it does in Vermont. A 2015 Report from the Bureau of Economic Research found “neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents.”
Someone recently asked me – given the debate happening nationally – if there was an example of a state that gets it right. I immediately answered “it’s Vermont.” Vermont has been a leader on school choice as well as public education.
Why is Vermont’s system better? First, it does not funnel dollars away from existing public school infrastructure, because Vermont’s tuitioning system is utilized by districts that do not operate a school for the grade levels being tuitioned. This is often the primary criticism of school choice systems. The second criticism often voiced is that, because tuitions are paid by local towns, there is a disparity between what a wealthy town can afford for “vouchers” over a less affluent town. This problem has already been addressed in Vermont through Act 60, which gives the little town of Victory (median income: $13,750) the same buying power on their tax rate as Norwich (median income: $62,935). If their spending per student where equal, they would both have the same tax rate.
Research shows that there is an achievement gap between Vermont’s high and low income communities . This is important because school choice is a mechanism that provides educational opportunities to Vermont’s most rural and disadvantaged students. It allows parents and students to find a learning environment that works best for them. Likewise, school choice has been used in cities around the U.S. to reverse segregation and diversify inner-city student populations using magnet schools to pull students from the suburbs.
To be clear, I am not advocating for the expansion of a voucher system in Vermont, but rather the preservation of a system that has effectively provided educational opportunities to at-risk students for the last 150 years.
Vermont’s education system has been one of the most dynamic in the country. With the recognition that a global economy and digital revolution requires more opportunities than ever before, the legislature passed Act 77. This included personalized learning plans, dual enrollment, and early college options for Vermont students. We must continue moving towards a system that recognizes the unique educational needs of each and every student.
So why the title of this commentary? Vermont’s public tuitioning system is progressive and protects our strong public education systems. It may be too early to tell what Betsy DeVos has planned for America’s public education system , but in todays hyper-partisan atmosphere, her nomination has become a rallying point for public educators and partisans alike.
Because DeVos is such polarizing figure, I am left to believe that she is a threat to Vermont’s School Choice system. Her version of “school choice” is vastly different than Vermont’s public tuitioning system. Further, every time she opens her mouth there is another headline about her intent to “gut public education” – something we should all rightly be afraid of. It undermines the value of public tuitioning in Vermont and further politicizes a system that is already under pressure from the Act 46 process and new rules from the State Board of Education.
It is my hope that our elected officials will rise above the fray and do what is right for our kids.
Benjamin Kinsley is Executive Director of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity and a native Vermonter and graduate of Norwich University. He is committed to government reforms in transparency, accountability, and sustainability and has been outspoken on issues ranging from local control to animal rights.