Democracy, School Choice, and Conflicting Interests:
An Interactive Forum
February 6, 1999
Vermont State House, 100 State Street
Montpelier, Vermont
Invitation to Attend Conference
In the coming months, Vermont legislators will consider the issue of inter-district high school choice. Waiting in the wings is a full range of other school choice possibilities including K-8 choice, privatization, charter schools, and the use of public monies to fund religious schools. The outcomes of these debates will have far-reaching consequences for Vermont children, families, communities, and our state’s future. Proponents of school choice claim that competition will lead to school improvement, increased parent involvement, and enhanced student achievement. Opponents maintain that school choice will weaken communities, foster inequity and social stratification, and siphon resources from needy schools. Because participants often hold strong views on the issue, political rhetoric sometimes obscures sound research. This forum intends to explore the ramifications of school choice options.

A panel of nationally recognized researchers and policy analysts will present their perspectives on a number of important questions and then invite participation from audience members:


Stephen Arons is Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the Massachusetts Bar.  He has written extensively on schooling, culture and the U.S. Constitution in numerous articles and books, including: Constitutional Implications of National Curriculum Standards; Compelling Belief: The Culture of American Schooling; and Short Route to Chaos: Conscience, Community, and the Re-constitution of American Schooling.

Michael Charney is the professional issues director of the Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU) where he also participates in a new labor/management intervention team designed to help turn around low-performing schools.  He edits Critique, the CTU's newspaper, and Ohio Teacher, the newspaper of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.  He writes frequently about Cleveland's state-funded private and religious voucher program. Charney was a founding member of the National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA) and an initiator of its "social justice unionism" perspective. He was chosen as the American Federation of Teachers' Teacher Unionist of the Year in 1996.

Lorna Jimerson is the current president of the Vermont School Boards Association. She works with the Annenberg Rural Policy program as a policy analyst and with the Northeast Regional Lab at Brown University carrying out research on Act 60. She has presented her research in numerous national forums on the effects of school choice in Minnesota, and continues to follow the emerging research on school choice in non-urban settings.

Kevin Mattson is presently research director at the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy (Rutgers University, where he teaches intellectual history part-time) and author of Creating a Democratic Public. Before coming to Rutgers he was a political activist in Washington, D.C., a supervisor of various youth service programs (which educated young people for civic responsibility), and a professor of American history. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Commonweal, Radical History Review, Social Policy, and other publications.

 H. 'Bud' Meyers is Chairperson, Department of Education, at the University of Vermont. Since 1990 he has been conducting limited research on school choice in rural communities by comparing outcomes for students from rural elementary schools who choose their high schools with their suburban peers.  He has also interviewed parents and school board members from elementary districts that offer choice of high school.  He will continue this research in England at Oxford University in the fall of 1999.

Ron Miller is the director of an independent elementary school (Bellwether School) in Williston, and an author and editor in the areas of alternative, progressive and holistic education.  His books include What Are Schools For, The Renewal of Meaning in Education, and Educational Freedom for a Democratic Society: A Critique of National Educational Goals, Standards and Curriculum. He is publisher of a new magazine, Paths of Learning: Options for Families and Communities, that will appear this spring. He is also a student of Dewey's work on education and democracy, and is presently writing a book on the free school movement of the 1960s, exploring the paradox of a search for participatory democracy through private education.

CJ Prentiss is beginning her first term as state senator from Ohio's 21st District after serving eight years in the Ohio House of Representatives where she initiated the Third Grade Guarantee, which calls for all-day kindergarten, class size limits of 15 in grades K-3, systematic parental involvement, classroom-based professional development for teachers, and school-based social service centers in districts where more than 50% of children fail to graduate. The Third Grade Guarantee has been adopted as the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus's alternative to privatizing public education through vouchers. CJ is also president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and her latest focus is a statewide Literacy Campaign to help ensure that all fourth graders meet new legislative mandates for reading.  Prentiss was a founding member of NCEA and served as its co-chair during 1997 and 1998.

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February 6, 1999:
Introductory Remarks by Kathleen Kesson, the Director of the John Dewey Project

Welcome.  I am Kathleen Kesson, the Director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education.  As many of you know, John Dewey, America’s foremost philosopher and social theorist, was born and raised in Burlington, and graduated from the University of Vermont.  His many contributions to our cultural and intellectual heritage include writings on philosophy, religion, politics, democracy, the social sciences, psychology, ethics, and education.  He was truly a Renaissance man.  The John Dewey Project was set up both to honor his memory and to examine, critique, and extend his ideas on education into the future.  At the heart of his educational philosophy was the important relationship between education and the development of a democratic society.  Dewey is receiving a great deal of renewed attention today.  Perhaps it is because his concerns and interests are still quite relevant to our own, and his democratic social vision is as yet not fully realized.

To Dewey, democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living.  Later in his life, he talked about democracy as a “habit of mind.”  We are gathered here today, in a public space that best symbolizes our democratic way of life to address an issue that may be the most significant educational issue since the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision in 1954, a court decision that mandated the integration of schools.  It is an issue with significant implications for our children, our schools, and our communities.  According to many scholars, there isn’t a more important decision in a democracy than the kind of education we want for all of our children.

In Vermont at this time, our state Board of Education has been charged with coming up with a plan for public high school choice.  We continue to await a decision from the State Supreme Court on whether public monies can be used for tuition to religious schools.  Choice advocates hope that our society will move toward a free market educational system, including turning over the business of education to business and to church-affiliated schools.  Choice opponents worry about equity and the loss of community and democratic control of education.  The debate has often been couched in simplistic terms, with clearly defined antagonists, but it is actually a very complex issue, with many unknown and unintended consequences.  We believe that a public forum set up to foster dialogue about these possibilities is the best way to practice the kind of democratic deliberation that Dewey himself would have approved of.

We have selected a group of researchers and policy analysts with a range of perspectives on the topic that have been neglected in our current debates.  We have purposely not framed the forum as a debate with clear cut oppositional positions.  Rather, we have brought together an expert in constitutional law, a teachers union activist, the director of a private school, a historian, a state legislator with experience in a school choice city, a school board member, and an education professor who hold differing opinions on the issue of school choice.  What connects our participants is a common interest in preserving and enhancing our democratic way of life. You may find that your perspective is not fairly or adequately represented on this panel.  If so, you will find that we have structured the day with opportunities for you to present your perspective in a dialogical forum.

We know that this issue is fraught with strong opinions.  The reason the question is so complicated is because some of the very cornerstones of our liberal democracy are present in this debate, and some of them are in apparent conflict, including individual liberty and an interest in the common good, freedom of association and cultural pluralism, religious freedom and the separation of church and state, the equalization of opportunity and a competitive meritocracy, democratic, public control of education and individual consumer choice.  Dewey himself, who was profoundly concerned with the common good expressed some ambivalence about state control of education in his landmark book Democracy and Education, when he asked “Is it possible for an educational system to be conducted by a national state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained, and corrupted?”

It is our hope that we can engage in a form of dialogue today that might involve fair play, honesty in the presentation of facts, careful listening, the ability to suspend preconceptions so as to hear different points of view, and the respectful sharing of diverse perspectives and opinions.  If we can do this well, we can model the kind of public discourse that Dewey saw as essential to the flourishing of a democratic society.

To start the day, panelists will present brief overviews of their perspectives, gained from their own scholarship and research.  Following that, randomly assigned working groups facilitated by the panelists will have a chance to engage in constructive dialogue about the issue of school choice in Vermont, with the goal of coming up with one or two pertinent questions or concerns to address to the panelists during the plenary session. After lunch, recorders will report out on the major topics or concerns addressed by their working group.  The additional questions will be posed to the panelists.  Time will be allotted at the end of the afternoon for statements from the floor.

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