John Dewey Project
on Progressive Education
at the University of Vermont
Town Meeting Discussion
On Saturday, February 5, 1999, over 60 Vermonters and out of state guests spent the day discussing the merits of "school choice." Sponsored by the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education and the Dewey Institute, the forum was designed to raise critical issues pertaining to the impacts school choice on the preservation of democracy.
Kathleen Kesson, the Director of the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education provided a welcome to the participants. She set the context for the forum by drawing upon the legacy of John Dewey, one of America’s foremost philosopher and social theorist who was born and raised in Burlington, and graduated from the University of Vermont. At the heart of his educational philosophy was the important relationship between education and the development of a democratic society. To Dewey, democracy was 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."
Kesson went on to add that, "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… The debate [about school choice] 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." She added, "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… What connects our [panelists]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."
Representative Dean Corren (DI) of the Vermont House of Representatives welcomes the audience and notes that this forum comes 11 months after choice for public school high schools passed through the legislature without debates, hearings, etc. There was never really a vote on school choice per say, as it was attached to an economic development bill that needed to be passed before Town Meeting Day.
Opponents of school choice were assured that before anything really gets enacted, it needs to be fleshed out in detail, so that they will ultimately have a voice in the process. Supporters of school choice were congratulated for getting school choice passed.
The Legislature is currently reviewing school choice models. He said, "Today’s forum is not for us to come together to make hard and fast decisions, but to begin a serious, better late than never, exploration of the issues… My hope is that we leave here, knowing what at least we don’t know."
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Kevin Mattson, Research Director for the Walt Whitman Center at Rutgers University, states that when we begin to debate school choice, we almost immediately turn to the technical aspects of a specific choice model. "But I want to raise some of the larger philosophical, political and theoretical matters, particularly the matter of what is "public education." And to look into this matter we need to ask what makes up the "public."", he said.
Mattson defined the "public" in two ways: as a set of values and as an actual thing, as a collection of individuals together for democratic debate. He stated that we are not solely private beings and considerations of the "common good" is a primary goal of public life. The public world stresses an accountability that is crucial in a democracy. Deliberation and discussion are the central activities of a public.
He went on to ask, "What does a public require of us if we are bound together for collective decision-making?" According to Mattson, the public school can serve as a gathering place. Citing the town-meeting tradition of Vermont, the public school can provide an opportunity for the essence of democracy, the face-to-face interaction, a possbility. town meeting tradition. Public education itself possesses a purpose to prepare people for participation.
He went on to add, "My fear is that since the 1970s and 1980s, the ideals of the public have been challenged. What lies behind privatization is not the "public," but the "market." The market sees people not as citizens, but as consumers. Private beings making individual choices. "Individual maximization of the good" to describe market relations. My biggest fear is that private values and markets values will trump public values. Private market favors those who can "do the shopping," who can purchase the goods. Market and democracy are not necessarily the same.
"We are increasingly evaluating our schools from the perspective of "how will this education advance private career goals," e.g. the market model of customer or consumer satisfaction. If we are taking up market-driven education, we need to be mindful of what we are giving up—a loosening of the importance of the public, a lack of accountability."
Mattson cited that privatization is taking place is variety of other public policy issues—welfare, environmental reform. He summed up his biggest concern about privatization to be found in the existence of "gated communities," which, according to him, "encourage people to turn their back on the public."
H. Bud Meyers, Professor of Education at the University of Vermont, began his talk by introducing a metaphor: that of an experiment in which a frog placed in a tepid pool of water. The water is slowly heated to the boiling level. As the heat rises the frog does not move. Eventually boiling to death. Meyers feared that school choice held the potential of doing harm to low income children, who, due to market forces, get trapped and isolated in poorer performing schools.
Meyers cited studies of school choice in Britain, which began offering choice with the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. These studies found a slowly emerging trend toward social class stratification. "While scholars at Oxford had predicted the social class effects of the choice initiatives in 1983," Meyers stated, "it was not until 1995 before many schools began to lose significant enrollments and by that event, lose resources to offer programs."
Referring still to schools impacted by choice in Britain, Meyers adds, "There are areas of the country where choice policy has had a real and drastic effects on certain schools… In blighted, urban areas, there are some secondary schools that are at 50 percent capacity. All of these schools have been labeled as failing schools both by the Department of Education and appear at the bottom of the rankings in publication of League tables (rankings on test score). Pupils left behind in those schools have literally no place to go, since the schools to which they would have transferred are now full." (Roberts 1998)
Applying these findings to the rural reality of Vermont, Meyers cited his own student of school choice in Vermont. He found that location, not perception of school quality, as the overriding factor in the choice of schools. "An hour and a half bus-ride all but eliminated choosing receiving schools regardless of other factors," he commented.
Additionally, Meyers found that parents tended to send their children to schools that reflected their social class standing. "The higher income community tended to send its children to the higher income receiving school, while the lower income community tended to send its children to he lower income school," he said, causing Meyers to conclude, "Market forces don’t seem to work in the way they are intended to work, especially for low income parents."
Drawing from existing studies, Meyers asserts that the location and social class standing of schools combine with the fact that the relative happiness of students within schools hinges on the perceptions of the students, to make for a rather muddled process through which families make choices about education. Meyers comments, "Kids are generally happy in the primary grades, less so in the middle years and these is usually quite a drop in student perceptions of quality of their school experience as they enter adolescence. This experience seems independent of the quality of the school, public or private… Since the real difference between most schools are of less magnitude than the differences in experiences that students have within schools, students’ experience and opportunity to learn is not likely to improve significantly." He concludes, "It will appear, after about five years or so, that school choice is working because choices will be made. However, since the data upon which those choices will be made is likely to be flawed, the system will not actually respond with change. What will happen, is that as resources are withdrawn from poor rural schools that are ‘punished’ by government policy to withhold resources for poor performance, the children who are trapped in those schools by circumstance will lose both opportunity to learn and their birthright."
Lorna Jimerson, an education researcher with the Northeast and Islands Regional LAB at Brown University and President of the Vermont School Board Association, asked the audience to separate speculation and rhetoric from fact, adding, "My intention today is to tell you what is known and what is not known about school choice… As with any policy there will be unintended consequences."
According to Jimerson, one intended consequence of school choice is that students’ academic achievement is higher for choosing families. She comments, "If you look at Milwaukee and Cleveland, there has been research conducted that is inconclusive, although there is evidence that there are no significant differences in achievement results… As an academic person I hesitate to say, that the evidence is hardly conclusive, but I can say that there is no conclusive evidence that school choice alone will improve academic achievement."
An other intended consequence of choice, according to Jimerson, is that parents are better satisfied with their children’s education when given the opportunity to choose their children’s school. Thus far, research has found that the parents who have taken advantage of school choice, report that they are more satisfied with their children’s school.
Jimerson goes on to add that a third intended consequence is that school choice will improve the entire system, meaning, that choice will spurn competition and thereby improve the entire system. She commented, "I researched that quite extensively in Minnesota. Schools that have lost students have reported the need to cut classes and services. In schools that gained, the converse was found. The finical way in which school choice plays out, constrains schools from being able to adapt to competitive situations." She sites a resent study in California on the impacts of charter schools.
She goes on to examine the "unintended" consequences of school choice, particularly the matter of social class stratification. Jimerson concludes that, "There is a body of research consistent across countries, states and types of school choice models, that school choice initiative increase social class stratification. The effects of school choice in Minnesota have been to concentrate minorities and poor families in lower performing schools. The same has been found in Fort Collins in Colorado."
Jimerson went on to ask, "How do school leaders respond to school choice?" She conducted extensive interviews with superintendents in Minnesota to find out. "I found that there is a fine line between public relations and marketing," she said, adding, "The successful schools were very effective in marketing their school. In Minnesota I found ads on TV, newspapers and radio from local public and private schools. Slick brochures are being circulated to attract customers. My question as a tax payer and as a citizen is, "how much does that cost?""
She also found that being forced to be competitive changed superintendents relationship to each other, quoting one superintendent, "In the past under the cooperative arrangement I would take in students who would do better here, no funds were exchanged, now that rarely happens. Now other superintendents do not want to work with me because I am a winner."
Jimerson concludes her remarks by asking the question of "What is not known about school choice at this point?" She wonders how private school can be accountable to local communities and governments. She cited an independent audit in Cleveland in which a number of schools had over estimated their enrollment. In Minnesota there are other examples of abuse in using public spending.
She goes on to ask, "One of my big questions for Vermont is "What does this mean for community culture?" In my community, my small school is very much a centering institution. People come to our school for town meetings and events."
"What happens is a school is forced to close? What happens when students are dispersed into other towns? What happens to communities when its young people don’t go to school together?" she also asks, commenting, "I have no idea, but I think it needs to be investigated."
Jimerson states that the attrition rate in most choice models is between 25 to 30%. She feels that the reasons for this need to be examined, as well as the handling of special education students.
Her biggest concern about school choice in Vermont is that of transportation. She asks, "How can you have authentic choice for all children if you cannot guarantee transportation? It is not easy, even in urban centers like Burlington, to go from one high school to another, let alone across some of our rural areas."
Jimerson concludes by saying that she believes that it is possible to craft a public policy of school choice that is not harmful, but that we need to look critically into the research before leaping into any one particular scheme.
Stephen Arons, Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, approached school choice from a constitutional perspective, claiming that education should be considered as a "fundamental individual right," and that education "is more like religion and communication than it is like economic, environmental or health care policy."
Arons is concerned about an increasingly intrusive role of government in setting educational standards. "Compulsory education is a justifiable public requirement," Arons states, going on to add, "No great democracy can survive without an educated citizenry. But the choice of the kind of education one gets is, or should be, an individual liberty." He concludes by stating that there should be equal school choice, school and teacher independence, a right to publicly funded education and the equitable funding of education for all school age children.
C.J. Prentiss, a state senator from Ohio, claims that by, "looking at the research, we know what we need to do to improve education. At least in Ohio, we have not put our dollars where the research shows we should put it."
She goes on to recount the history of the school choice legislation as it was moving through the Ohio Legislature, citing partisan battles and comprises made to the bill along the way.
She adds that the Ohio choice program is open to 600 districts, yet only 300 participate. Usually, those districts opting out of the program are located in the more wealthy school districts. Of the 1.8 million students eligible to receive vouchers, only 18,000 have taken advantage of it.
Michael Charney, a teacher’s union leader and a high school teacher in Cleveland, claims that the school choice voucher program in Cleveland was more about politics than sound policy. Because of the limited voucher (90% of $2,500) students could not afford elite private schools or even the Catholic high school. There was an option for suburban schools to participate. None of them did.
He calls into question the integrity of school choice advocates—claiming that if they were serious about children’s education, they would try to address some of the more pressing issues facing poor families.
He also raises a concern about paying private teachers, and how privatization is often used to undermine worker’s rights.
Charney agrees that the issue of school choice has stimulated teachers’ union to take a more active role in improving education. Challenging them to take a more holistic view of education.
Ron Miller, , director of an independent elementary school in Williston, VT and author of several books on alternative schooling, wants to emphasize the fundamental ambiguity of school choice. He claims that there is a tension in the freedom of individual choice and the ideal of the commonwealth in which a concern for the common good is paramount. The conservative argument is that we must defend the freedom of individuals to make their own educational choices, while the liberal or progressive argument is that education must be understood in terms of the functioning of the democracy. His own work as an educator is wrought with these same tensions. "I am passionately committed to participatory democracy and I agree with much of progressive agenda of equity, inclusively and the search for a common good that transcends private advantage and personal success… Yet, I have founded and direct a private school and I send my children to private schools. If we fail to honor both dimensions of our democracy we will cripple the democracy and face losing it."
In the 1960’s, the public faith in public education began to wane. New innovations sprung out of these critiques were lead, in large part, by radical democrats, fed up with the bureaucratization of public schools. "They saw that schooling, as a whole, did not serve democracy, but technocracy. A society entirely geared to economic values, efficient operation and bureaucratic styles of management in which the individual was forgotten." Many radical democrats felt they had no choice but to abandon this system and try to achieve participatory democracy in local settings."
Miller goes on to add that Vermont has strong public schools, with many very good teachers dedicated to educating children as whole human beings. However, he notes, the system is facing ever increasing economic and political pressures that place quantifiable numbers above children’s well being. Homeschooling and alternative schools can be characterized as a flight from this ever burgeoning technocratic way of managing schools.
Miller says that people like himself who choose to send their children to private, alternative schools are faced with a dilemma: what about the children whose families don’t have the income or cultural capital to make such choices? Should the public school system be left behind?
Miller tries to overcome these tensions by finding a harmony in democracy in its full sense. He goes on to add, "If we choose to defend public education and insist that no public monies should be used to fund any private alternative, then we must ask why are so many people fleeing from public to private spaces? We must join their fight against standardization and social engineering and make education truly democratic… But on the other hand, if we defend school choice, and except public money to be used to support private preferences, including religious values that are not held by the rest of society, then we had better be prepared to demonstrate how the values of public democracy can be achieved if not through public schooling."
Miller goes on to recount how, at a recent conference for private school directors, he was confronted time and time again with crass-economic driven managerial techniques in which schools competed against one another, children were treated as "resources" and teachers were evaluated and rewarded on test scores and classroom enrollment.
The conflict is not so much between public schools and personal choice. The conflict is between a genuine democracy and an inhuman technocracy that treats our children like raw material for an economic machine. This can happen in a public school system or a market-driven private schools, it doesn’t matter."
After a brief break, the panelists facilitate small group discussions. These small groups are charged with coming up with one or two overarching questions to pose during the afternoon town meeting discussion.
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Town Meeting Discussion:
The opening question posed by moderator Dean Corren was: "What is the responsibility of the government to support public education or to merely support the education of all children?"
Arons responds by saying that the role should be latter. An audience member adds that in the Vermont state constitution there is no requirement for the government to provide public education.
The second question posited by Corren was: "What are the problems that school choice is supposed to solve, and how effective has school choice been in solving them?"
Arons responds by saying that that is not necessarily the way that school choice is put by its advocates. It is usually put in the context of market forces that will improve overall quality. He adds, "I believe that competitive argument is actually counter productive."
Miller claims that one of the major challenges to education is the diversity of people and communities and ways of learning. "If you have a system that is arranged bureaucratically, a system designed to serve the nation at large, you cannot adequately address the differences people come in with. … We need a system that accommodates this diversity in a democratic context, and that’s the big trick," he said, fearing the use of standards to gauge the effectiveness of schools
Mattson reminds the audience that there are some basic core needs of all students and that there needs to be some fundamental basis of education. Diversity needs to be balanced against the common good.
Meyer states that whenever a school choice program has been implemented, that standardized test scores are used to determine the measures of excellence.
Miller points out the irony of having increased standardization of testing accompanying school choice programs.
Charney reminds the audience that there are financial and geographic limitations to the creation of alternative schools, that people’s desires for diversity may not be fulfilled either because it costs too much, or not enough people are interested in the same approaches to education. "Positing an ideal without looking at what you can pull off, is not a good idea," he adds.
An audience member notes that a paradox exists among the various arguments for school choice. "On one hand you have the people who see school choice as a way for all schools to improve, while others see choice as an opportunity for schools to be different, offering a variety of opportunities to a variety of students," he says.
Meyers comments on how, depending on how the policy is set, that instead of having parents set the standards for a given school, the school itself is required to set its own standards, thereby selecting students using its own criteria.
An audience members comments that the purpose of school choice is for people to be able to exercise their personal freedoms.
Another audience member comments that the example of the market in a free economy points to the intelligence of the people in making decisions that this process is more effective, though messier, than having one person or a small group of people making decisions. He said, "I think we will never really come up with one definition of a quality school. I think we are looking at schools as a commodity. You buy it now and then you are all set. The reality is, is that the value of an education is way in the future. The reality of bureaucracy is that they move so darn slow that the reality is is that we are still trying to turn out factory workers. The reality is, is that we need people to think outside of the box, come up with all sorts of unknowns. I think that every parent and student will need to come up with their own best guess on what it important for them to have in the future."
Arons comments that if we are not talking about the welfare of all children, we need to seriously look at how school choice is designed and ask what effect it will have for the children who are most dis-serviced by the current system of education.
Mattson adds that he is fearful that we will increasingly set our educational objectives based on what businesses say they need. "People are not only to be good workers, but citizens who are prepared to participate," he claims.
An audience member responds that he agrees, and that he believes the skills needed to participate in democracy are becoming the same kind of skills that are needed within the increasingly diverse economy.
Charney brings up the tension that occurs when, "you have the ability of schools to set it owns methods of teaching that my actually instill undemocratic or authoritarian values. Such values may be the desired outcomes that parents want, either based on their religious belief or on their understanding of what an effective education is. Sometimes it is hard to have it both ways. Just because parents are making choices doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have a higher community standard. Each position is wrought with contradictions."
An audience member responds that she thinks that we are facing a similar problem in Vermont, as the state is determining these standards.
An other audience members points out that we already have school choice for those that can afford it. He claims that private schools can and do a good job of preparing people to participate in democracy, citing that 55% Vermont state senators went to private schools. He quotes from a newsletter that was available at the information desk that claims that school choice undermines democracy… promoting escape, individualized advancement… He ends his comment by asking, "Do we see these results in our senators who have decided to serve the public good?"
An audience member comments about the school-to-work efforts currently underway in the state, claiming that authority to make decisions in these programs is being placed into the hands of business enterprises. He sees this as further eroding the validity of public education.
Meyers states that the kind of public school choice in the law may erode the kind of choice that Vermonters currently possess—namely, high school students from towns without a public high school going to private academies. Meyers states, "On one hand you have a rich history of private academies taking on the role of educating children all across New England. When you then add public school choice, offered across the state or even within regions, you face the potential dilemma of messing with these arrangements. When you try to operationalize public school choice as policy you find that the devil is in the details of how that actually becomes articulated in local communities, which is what so many of us are concerned about. You may face a kind of class conflict that Vermont has never really seen."
The next question posed by Corren is: "How can we maintain the public school choice we currently have, while improving the quality of all of the schools?"
An audience member suggests that there might be way to design an approach that doesn’t throw "the baby out with the bath water."
An other audience member claims that he is very worried about what has happened in Chile and Hawaii where elites have taken their vouchers and used them to supplement their already high incomes while still sending their children to private schools. "They then lose interest in public education and when they come into positions of power, they underfund public education," he claims, adding, "What happens is that the wealthy schools become even more wealthy, and the public schools become poorer. [To the panel] I’d like to hear your thoughts on that. I also wonder if there is a way to change the current ways of running public schools that will allow for more diverse ways of learning… ways to reform the technocracy that Ron [Miller] was talking about.
Prentiss rephrases the questions: "how do you prevent the bleeding of funds to public schools, yet provide dollars so that people can have choices?" She goes on to add, "In Ohio we just capped the amount of the voucher, $2,500. If you were poor this would just get you into the bare minimum schools. One of the ways we handled this was to put a cap on it. In Ohio when we gave money to a parent, we had a lot of strings attached to it."
Arons responds that he understood the question as, "how do you keep rich people from pricing poor people out of the market?" He thinks that there are two technical ways that this can be done. He adds, "Although I am not able to comment on the political (or financial issues involved), the first thing you can do is provide a full cost voucher. The second thing you can do is to restrict the school from charging more than the amount of the voucher."
An audience member states that in his district there are 7% of the children who go to Catholic school and 6% who are homeschooled. The private school that they attend is half of what the local public school charges. "Yet, the college entrance rate for the private school is excellent, and the drug and alcohol use is lower," he says, adding, "Enrollment in our public school has steadily decreased over the last few years."
An audience member comments that he was educated in public schools, and felt that he got a good education. He says, "I feel that what we’ve got here a disagreement, that it is becoming more about power and money, rather than what is best for the children. We are increasingly needing to compete in the global economy. We are going to have to compete. When I was a little boy I noticed that the UPS man always ran, and the postman always walked. I heard people say that if you let the private sector get into the mail delivery business that they would destroy the postal system. It didn’t happen. It actually made them better. Then they broke up AT&T, it made the phone system better. The education system is about to fold under its own weight. It will have to compete. And what you are going to see is a smaller public school system. The way you stop skimming good students, you provide 100% voucher system. In Vermont what you will see is most likely the same buildings, most likely the same teachers… free of this top down authority that believes that parents are ignorant bozos, and that we know what is best. What you are seeing increasingly is the alienation of parents. I’m afraid that those that pose solutions are really the sources of the problems." [Members of the audience applaud.]
Meyers responds by asking the audience to think about the consequences of changing the system into what they think it should be. He says, "I think we’ve all heard of the term "going postal." What you have in this phenomena is the result of competition. I watched for 30 years of the effect of competition on my father who was a postman. So I ask that you look deeply at the consequences of competition on real kids and real people."
An audience member responds that she agrees with the idea of competing. Vermont has a rich history of community schools. "We have an opportunity, using public charter schools, to create schools based on cooperation. I think we need to think more creatively, with the students interests more at the forefront," she says.
Another member of the audience wants to ask the Legislature to consider what the goals of a school choice program might be. "We have heard today that we need to put decisions into the hands of parents, because they know what their children need," he says, adding, "We have heard that we need to raise student achievement in order to compete in the global economy. The expenditure of public funds should include accountability. I simply want to say that we need to be clear about what these goals are, particularly if we are to have accountability with our public funds."
Another audience member comments that the highest cost per child are public schools in the wealthy public schools outside of New York City, claiming that the good public schools are located in wealthy suburbs. He says, "We can do some much within our public schools that we are not doing. Charter schools are expanding across the country. We can continue to try to sweep back the sea, but we need to except the inevitable. I have never seen a superintendent ask parents and children what they would like prior to opening a school." [Members of the audience applaud.]
Prentiss states that she is really upset with the state of public schools. She is committed to public schooling, but has seen superintendents so resistant to change. "It has been very frustrating," she admits, "However, I am not committed to abandoning public education. If we meet our obligation as a government, then we don’t have any money left over to make an open voucher system work."
An audience member states that, "we are paying for services that we do not want."
Another audience members comments on the many opportunities that exist for doing innovative things in schools—from distance learning to drawing upon some of the vocation training programs currently in existence.
An audience member comments on his concern about the fiscal reality of enacting the kind of choice model being proposed by other members of the audience. "What we are talking about is that those children already going to private schools will benefit, leaving the rest out in the cold. If we paid every parent who home schooled, every tuition of every private school, we would be having tremendous fiscal hardship," he claims.
Corren points out that the state seal of Vermont has emblazoned on it "unity" and "freedom," which, "embodies one or our great dichotomies." He goes on to add, "How do we reconcile our need for independence with our communitarian needs. It seems to me that is how the farmers of the 18th century survived the harsh winters has something to do with that phrase. Which means we have to honor whatever we decide in this chamber. Which leads to the last question: ‘How can I reconcile looking out for the interest of my children when I make a choice in terms of its impact on the other children of the state?’"
An audience member responds to the question about the fiscal reality of a voucher program. He claims that the actual financial impact would be minimal. He adds, "In terms of the folks from Cleveland, I am beginning to think that you wouldn’t have a problem with school choice as long as it was equitably fair."
Charney responds that whenever we look to having a single interest group respond with a solution, that they will come up with an answer that focuses on the interests of that group, whether they be a teacher’s union, a business or a citizen action group. He concludes, "We need to look to the government, who have a responsibility to look out for the common interest of the whole interest of society. That is why private schools who meet behind closed doors will do what is best for their constituencies, but not necessarily what is best for society on the whole. They are not about public accountability measures, because that is not what they are about. The biggest challenge in a participatory democracy is moving away from asking the question of what is best for me to what is best for all of us. I think that we will not find the answer in the direction of individual parents, teachers or schools. If we look for it there, we probably won’t find it."
An audience member responds by saying that what he is hearing is that people are concerned that private institutions will not act and behave altruistically. He states, "That is a concern whenever you have private institutions. But as long as people send their children to institutions, whether it be Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc., as long as they are productive members of society, obey the law, are good citizens, that is fine. The culture of America is that we’ll all be mutts."
Another audience member raises the fact that the U.S. economy leads the world, graduation rates are high, etc. He asks, "what are we really concerned about? What I have heard today has to do with some very particular and personal things that relate back to the freedom and unity themes mentioned earlier." If every little group has its own schools, where will unity come from? What will happen to the folkways and morays that hold our society together? Having 900 television stations has not improved the quality of our lives. Competition has not improved quality that much. And the last piece I would say here is that if we open our doors to any sets of values. Then we will have to fund a school that believes in Jihad, that believes in holy war that would take public monies to support."
An other audience member interjects, "I really object to that statement. I spent two years in Saudi Arabia and I know their culture. They are one of the most tolerant people in the world. There may be some factions that may be violent…"
He replies, "There are some factions in the Muslim community… but the point that I am trying to make is that if you open up public funding for schools you open them up to any set of values. "
Corren asks that we try to adhere to the civility of the chamber and let people talk.
An audience member states Once you engage people, parents in choices, they will stay engaged. While I was home schooling my kids I sat on the public school board. The private schools are accountable, more and more so than our public schools today.
Corren thanks the audience.
Kesson reminds the audience that this is hopefully the first of many such discussions. She asks the audience to complete the evaluation and invites people who feel like they want to say more on the topics raised today to submit in writing their comments to be included in the record. She asks the panel if they have any closing remarks.
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Jimerson says that she felt the diversity represented on the panel was a good one. She felt that she learned a lot about the Vermont school choice side.
Arons trusts that this is just a first step. He felt the message from Cleveland to be quite instructive and quite chilling. It makes clear how difficult it is to have a principled discussion of an issue when one is aware of the political realities that distort and destroy the kind of principles that one is trying to promote. He goes on to add, "I think the gap between the two is enormous. I also want to pick on an issue that was only touched on, and that was public accountability. I want to suggest that we keep in mind the dictum that "he who pays the piper, plays the tune." I just want to suggest that we separate the two. It is absolutely essential that the state pay in full our children’s education, but that it must not control what is being taught. We will have to amend the Constitution to do this, but I believe it is possible."
Kevin Mattson noted the importance of forums like this one to the functioning of a strong democracy and that he was impressed by the fact that today’s forum didn’t polarize into a debate. He pointed to the opportunity to develop public charter schools as perhaps a viable middle ground between the full voucher and no choice ends of the debate, in which there is still public financing, but still encourages greater participation in the running of the school.
Ron Miller returned to the theme of harmony and balance, stating that if we move to either one pole or the other, we loose the balance that is so crucial to our democracy.
C.J. Prentiss felt that it is the role of the government and its laws, and not the good will of the people, that protects marginalized and poor people. "As I look historically at the educational system, those that who have the money, got the goods. We had the pauper schools. I’m scared to death to move into a situation of what I see as an upper middle class argument about their right to choose and design… when I represent poor, Appalachian families who never received an adequate education to make informed choices, then…" She looks to government to unsure that there are standards and consistency for all children, regardless of race, income and gender. She agrees with the idea of public charter schools, in which public accountability is still maintained.
Michael Charney emphasized the unique role that Vermont can play in conducting a civil dialogue around the higher ideals of the authentic purpose of an education. He stated that this kind of discussion would have never have taken place in Ohio, in part, because Ohioians are more oppressed than those in Vermont. There are more people of color, more poorer people who are angered by their lack of power and access to the system. In Ohio, the issue of standardized testing would consistently be brought up. Vermont has an opportunity to lead the nation in a discussion and action about what kids should be about, rather than how they should perform on those tests.
Bud Meyers claimed to have learned how complicated the school choice issue is in this state, part because we have lost a sense of community in Vermont, in which you could feel that you had an impact on your school and what’s taught there. "These changes have saddened me, if they divide people from their neighbors. I know that there many of you in the audience here who strongly support school choice, and I hope you get what you want… But you ought not get what you want at the expense of other children." He reminded the audience to be mindful of the unintended consequences of school choice initiatives and urges them to looks at the data where ever school choice as become public policy. "If you do choose to choose over other people’s children I will be on this same chamber floor, speaking to these issues again. I thank you for coming."
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