What Vermont Can Teach Democrats about Education

Eight hundred people showed up for the meeting. So many that it was necessary to use the school gymnasium instead of the more intimate and comfortable auditorium, as planned.

It is a hard trick, here in Vermont, getting that many people to come out at night to attend a meeting on some issue of public concern. While the state is famous for its town meetings (see Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech painting), most issues are settled by secret ballot these days rather than by public debate and a show of hands, the parliamentary device known as “dividing the house.” People hereabouts say the only public meeting guaranteed to draw a big crowd is one where the issue being debated has to do with the deer season. Propose the legal taking of female deer during rifle season and they will come. Otherwise .  .  . not so much.

But the issue that drew the 800 to the Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester that December night is one that is every bit as fraught as the deer season. The people were there to listen and be heard and make a statement through their presence on the issue of school choice.

They were, almost all of them, in favor of it. And they wanted to let the educrats know this.

The Burr and Burton Academy is almost 190 years old. It is a private institution. Nonprofit, of course. There is no public high school in Manchester. Students of high school age in Manchester and certain surrounding communities that have no public high school will be enrolled there at public expense. The school charges tuition and the town pays. The amount is open to negotiation. It is currently about $17,000 per pupil per year.

When students and their parents choose not to attend Burr and Burton and attend another school, the town will pay this same amount toward the tuition. (As long, that is, as the school is not “religious” in character.) The student is then said to be “tuitioned out.” In the jargon of the eduwars, the money follows the student.

By any measure, Burr and Burton is an excellent school. And judging by the turnout that night, people are very happy with it. So happy, in fact, that there are people who choose to live in Manchester precisely because of the school and this “tuitioning out” feature. The excellence of the school has attracted telecommuters and the kind of people who are known, locally, as “trustafarians,” and it is thought to have a very positive influence on property values.

The real measure of the school’s success, however, is simpler than that. If it were a bad school, parents wouldn’t send their children there. They would take the money and look elsewhere. People tend to take decisive action when the welfare of their children is at stake. Ask Charles Darwin. Or watch them spend a quarter of a million for an undergraduate degree for their darlings.

But there is something about this elementary concept that drives the education establishment to distraction and worse. In their minds, education is something like a public utility; that is, a monopoly that produces a standardized product of indifferent quality under the management of a vast and impregnable bureaucracy.

So school choice is not—and could never be—supported by the education bureaucracy. It threatens not just their convictions but their livelihoods. Where parents can take their kids and the public money that is being spent on them out of one school and move them, and it, to another—well, this threatens the entire system.

Why it might even, in the dark vision of one of the prominent Vermont opponents of school choice, “turn children into commodities.”

Which of course stands the whole thing on its head. Commodities don’t make choices. They are manipulated, packaged, and bundled. As are students in the grip of the industrial-education complex.

Still, the educrats resist the concept of choice and independent schools such as those that have existed in Vermont for generations. (There are 129 independent schools in Vermont. Just under 9,200 students attend these schools, about 11.5 percent of Vermont’s student population.) So an unelected group of commissars, called the Vermont State Board of Education, recently undertook to rewrite some of the rules that govern the state’s independent schools. The people running schools like Burr and Burton—principals and board members—were alarmed and said so. People pushing the rules changes claimed it had something to do with “transparency” and “special needs” students, but those changes were, to anyone with eyes to see, the first inch of the camel’s nose. What the educrats don’t like about independent schools is precisely the thing that makes them successful—their independence.

Hence the meeting at Burr and Burton, where members of the VSBE defended their proposals to the skeptical and sometimes hostile 800. One reason for the proposed changes, according to Stephan Morse, the board’s chairman, was the recent and unpleasant failure of Burlington College, which, he said, had been insufficiently transparent and, when it failed, had left taxpayers on the hook.

Well, Burlington College failed under the leadership of one Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie. Her political connections were the school’s strongest—if not its only—asset. Still, the school was there, one day, like the circus train that had pulled in overnight, and you needed only to read the newspaper stories (which were pretty thin) to see that it was a chancy proposition. What Vermont did not need, and could not afford, was another institution devoted to education. The state is running out of students to educate.

There are 20,000 fewer of them now than there were 15 years ago, which, in a rational universe, would mean fewer schools and fewer teachers. This, of course, is unacceptable to an education apparatus that includes, most conspicuously, the teachers’ unions.

These are easily the most powerful organizations in the state. Even the deer hunters fear them. And the teachers’ unions hate and fear, with justification, Vermont’s independ-ent schools, not least because members of their faculties do not belong to the National Education Association. What’s more, these schools are successful, and when the education apparatus is downsized—as it inevitably will be—the strong will survive. Burr and Burton is strong.

As are some other Vermont independent schools, such as St. Johnsbury Academy, which was founded in 1842. Like Burr and Burton, it is prestigious, prosperous, and successful, attracting students from around the world. So it was also a target. And there was a meeting, like the one in Manchester. It was attended by 400 people. Among the defenders of the St. Johnsbury Academy is the Caledonian Record, the daily that serves the state’s “Northeast Kingdom.” The paper published the findings of Oliver Olsen, a state representative and supporter of school choice who had discovered that a member of the Vermont State Board of Education is on the payroll, of “an organization funded by public school teacher unions.” The man saw no conflict of interest, educrats being serenely confident in the belief that they are on the side of the good and enlightened.

This meeting, like the one in Manchester, grew heated at times, and this drew a tut-tut op-ed from “the paid executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.” The educrats, it seems, do not like second guessing of their motives.

Now, all this might be of only minor, parochial interest. It is a Vermont story, after all, and there are fewer people in that entire state than populate the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. But there is reason to pay attention. Witness the grilling of Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who is an advocate for more choice and the empowerment of parents in decisions about the education of their children. She was treated roughly in her confirmation hearings, not least by the Jeanne d’Arc of the American left, Elizabeth Warren, who made it plain what she thinks of DeVos. Namely, that she simply will not do.

Interesting, since Warren once wrote, in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap, “With fully funded vouchers, parents of all income levels could send their children—and the accompanying financial support—to the schools of their choice.” It is not an issue of “public versus private competition” she wrote. “The problem is not vouchers; the problem is parental choice.”

That sounds very much like the sort of person who would have attended one of those Vermont meetings back in December.

Vermont may be little, but this is the state that has blessed the nation with Bernie Sanders, so attention needs be paid. And if even here, people who have children to educate favor choice and if the system that has grown up over more than a century and a half is one that succeeds and enjoys public support, then maybe there is one thing this little state can teach the rest of the nation.

Once she is confirmed, Secretary DeVos should come up and see how choice is done and done right—while there is still time.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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