Democracy, School Choice, and Conflicting Interests:
An Interactive Forum
Executive Summary

February 6, 1999
Vermont State House
Montpelier, VT
Compiled by the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education

 I.  Panel Presentations
II.  Central Themes and Discussion
III. Analysis

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 of 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, 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, Director of the Dewey Institute and member of the Vermont House of Representatives, then welcomed the audience and reminded them of some of the recent history behind school choice in Vermont, noting that this forum comes 11 months after choice for public school high schools passed through the legislature without hearing or debate. There was never really a vote on school choice per se, as it was attached to the school funding "corrections" bill that many believed needed to be passed before Town Meeting Day. While supporters of school choice were congratulated for getting it passed, opponents were assured that nothing would be implemented until more detailed legislation was enacted, so that they will ultimately have a voice in the process. 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 at least what we don’t know."

Kevin Mattson, Research Director for the Walt Whitman Center at Rutgers University, began the forum by stating, "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…. 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…

H. Bud Meyers, Professor of Education at the University of Vermont, cited his own study of school choice in Vermont. He found that location, not perception of school quality, was the overriding factor in the choice of schools. "An hour and a half bus-ride all but eliminated choosing [to send children to other] schools," 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 the 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."

Lorna Jimerson, an education researcher with the Northeast and Islands Regional LAB at Brown University and President of the Vermont School Board Association, stated that, "If you look at Milwaukee and Cleveland [two cities with comprehensive school choice programs], the research conducted has been inconclusive, although there is evidence that there are no significant differences in achievement results [between private and public schools]…" She cites studies that document how schools that have lost students to other schools have reported the need to cut classes and services. In schools that gained, the converse was found. She also adds that there is a body of research consistent across countries, states and types of school choice models, that school choice initiatives increase social class stratification. Additionally, Jimerson asks, "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 if 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’s 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?"

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 the 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, and a vocal critic of school choice plans, summarized the legislative process that took place in Ohio that lead up to the institution of school choice in Cleveland. Representing one of the state’s poorest districts, Prentiss is concerned about the equity in school choice plans. In Ohio, 300 out of 600 school districts have participated in the school choice program. Of the 1.8 million students, only 18,000 have taken advantage of it.

Michael Charney, a teacher’s union leader and a high school teacher in Cleveland, claimed 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, but none of them did. He seriously called into doubt the motives of strong school choice advocates. Charney acknowledged that the school choice issue has stimulated the 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, discussed his own ambivalence about school choice, claiming that the issue is fraught with paradoxes. 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? 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 expect 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."

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Following lunch, a town meeting style discussion was conducted among the 40 or so remaining audience members and the panelists. We have summarized the central themes of this interactive dialogue.

The discussion began with a question posed by Dean Corren concerning the overall objectives of school choice options. An audience member noted 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." Several audience members discussed the need for children to receive a quality education in order to succeed in the "global economy." One audience member who received applause from other members of the audience said, "We are increasingly needing to compete in the global economy. We are going to have to compete." He then cited examples of where large monopolies were deregulated or broken up and claimed that services improved because of the new competition created. He went on to add, "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."

An audience member responded that he agreed, and that he believed the skills needed to participate in democracy are becoming the same kind of skills that are needed within the increasingly diverse economy.

Other audience members called into question the importance of competition to improving services. It was noted that sometimes competition does more harm and/or eliminates the benefits of cooperation within the educational community.

A central concern of the strong advocates for school choice in the audience pertained to the matter of parental choice. It was felt that placing decisions into the hands of parents (and by inference, the children as well), greater participation in the children’s schooling would occur, thereby improving the quality of schooling. An audience member summed up the prevailing sentiment this way, "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."

Panelist Bud Meyers stated that the current kind of public school choice embodied in the emerging legislation 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

There was consensus among the forum participants that the current public school system was, indeed, in need of changes. An audience member asked, "I 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."

Another audience member added, "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 said.

A few opponents of school choice voiced a concern that in places like Chile and Great Britain, school choice plans have been shown to increase social stratification and inequity. Others claimed that most school choice programs only aided those who were already attending privateschools. Transportation costs and the limitations placed on vouchers (usually capped at a certain amount well below most private school tuition) were barriers to full participation. Among the strong school choice proponents there was a consensus that a "full voucher" program should be implemented, thereby guaranteeing any child, regardless of his or her family’s income, can go to private or public school of choice. A full voucher plan would ensure that the inequities in the system would be nullified.

C.J Prentiss, the Ohio Senator, felt that a full voucher program would be unrealistic given the tight fiscal realities that most states and counties operate under. This concern about tight fiscal funding was echoed by other audience members as well. Prentiss added, "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."

"The expenditure of public funds should include accountability," claimed one audience member. "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," she goes on to add.

It was felt by some school choice opponents that choice would erode public accountability. "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," said on audience member.

Bud Meyers raised the concern that in places like Great Britain where a voucher program has been in place for a number of years, standardized test scores are used to determine the measures of excellence. With the use of public monies must come increased public accountability.

Just how to ensure the quality of private school education was a consistent theme throughout the forum. Some fears were raised about the specter of having schools teaching values that are antithetical to the values of the larger, democratic society.

The forum concluded with some final comments from the panelists. Stephen Arons claimed that he would leave this forum more mindful of the "chilling effect" that the political system has on the extension of personal freedoms into such matters as education. Lorna Jimerson said that she appreciated the opportunity to listen to the various view points expressed during the day. 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 poles of the debate.

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 was the role of the government, and not the good will of the people, that protects marginalized and poor people. She looked to government to insure that there are standards and consistency for all children, regardless of race, income and gender. Michael Charney emphasized the unique role that Vermont can play in conducting a civil dialogue around the higher ideals and authentic purpose of education. "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 tests," he commented. Bud Meyers claimed to have developed a deeper appreciation of how complicated school choice issue was. He reminded the audience to be mindful of the unintended consequences of school choice initiatives and promised to continue to bring a research perspective to the debate as it evolves over the next several years.

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The turnout for the forum was moderate. Over 60 people were present during the morning panel sessions. Over 30 people stayed through until the forum’s completion. A little over 60% of the audience who remained to complete a evaluative questionnaire stated a strong opinion in favor of school choice prior to attending the forum.

The proponents of competition believed that the ability of parents to choose their child’s school would lead to greater options in schooling. It was felt that by opening the school system up to competition, the "market" would ensure that quality schools would emerge.

Some of the potential negative consequences of school choice such as the matter of public accountability, standards setting, and equity issues pertaining to transportation and the cost of private school tuition, were consistently raised by the panelists and a few members of the audience.

There appeared to be a consensus among all forum participants that the existing structure of public schooling was in need of changing. However, there was a great deal of "talking past each other." When Dean Corren raised a final question about, "How can we maintain the public school choice we currently have, while improving the quality of all of the schools?", no member of the audience actually addressed this question pertaining to the implications of personal choices in education upon the common good.

Clearly, more public discussions of this nature are needed to explore various aspects of this important issue. We suggest narrowing the focus of such future forums to particular implications of school choice in Vermont. Some of these narrower themes include:

More education about school choice and its implications for individual students, their families and our educational system is

certainly needed We suggest taking a cautious approach toward the issue, as the research that is emerging on the impacts of choice on student achievement and marked improvements throughout an educational system is inconclusive at this time. Additionally, the potential negative consequences of school choice programs on poorer families needs to be critically examined. "Opening the door" to school choice can lead to many unintended consequences. With this said, it is clear that we have achieved consensus that our system of public education is in need of an overhaul. It would appear that a viable middle ground can be found. Two examples cited during the forum included promoting public charter schools and have schools within schools.

The fundamental question to ask at this juncture is, "Is the ‘market’ the appropriate mechanism to bring about such changes?" Our response to this very complex question places democratic values at the forefront, hinging on approaches to reform that draw more of Vermont’s citizens into the deliberation. Clearly, school choice as a policy issue is drawing the kind of attention from the public needed to develop invigorated approaches to educating our democracy’s children. This forum served as a venue for the issues to be publicly aired. As one of the audience members wrote on his/her evaluation, "We need more opportunities like this to discuss these very important issues."

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