Two sides debate education
MONTPELIER — What role should government play in education?
That was the question posed during a debate Tuesday night at the State House, where two sides squared off to discuss the merits of operating public schools versus giving parents vouchers to allow their children to attend a private school of their choice.
On the public school side was Paul Cillo, president of the Public Assets Institutes, who was joined by Bill Mathis of the National Education Policy Center, who also serves on the State Board of Education.
The other side of the debate featured Rick Gordon, director of the Compass School, a private school in Westminster, and Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute.
“If the system they’re in isn’t working for them, they have the right to find a system that is right for them,” said Roper, who advocated vouchers as a means for a parent to shop around for a school that is right for her or his child.
Roper said a situation where businesses compete for customers empowers the customer, and the same rings true when it comes to shopping around for schools.
“Education is not like breakfast cereal where you can try one brand after another until you find the one you like,” Cillo responded.
Cillo said that public schools are the cornerstones of most communities, noting that they are democratically controlled, unlike private schools, which are typically operated by boards of directors.
“Private interests have an eye on your money and they don’t have the best interests of your child, your school or your town,” Mathis said.
Gordon took exception to Mathis’ remark.
“Money is not the object. Giving every child the best education is the object,” Gordon said. “At our school, we have the hardest kids. We have the kids who weren’t thriving elsewhere.”
Roper shared figures to support an argument that independent schools are able to deliver education at a lower cost than public schools. Mathis asserted that the numbers are hard to confirm because independent schools are not required to disclose their finances to the public.
According to Mathis, during the 2013 fiscal year, 2,525 of the state’s approximately 90,000 students attended independent schools, at a total cost of $36.7 million, or $14,137 per student. During that same period, it cost $12,789 per equalized pupil in the public school system.
Mathis acknowledged there is a difference between counting students and counting equalized pupils, but said the figures were comparable.
For a true apples-to-apples comparison, during the 2013 fiscal year, private high schools in Vermont cost $14,671 per student, versus $13,144 for each student attending a public union high school.
The topic of independent and private schools has come up numerous times during the current legislative session. On the Senate side, S.91 would require an independent school to provide special education in at least four categories, as well as have a “blind admissions” policy, meaning an independent school could not deny admission to a special education student.
On the House side, H.521 would prohibit a public elementary or secondary school from closing and reopening as a private school to serve the same population, which is what the North Bennington Graded School did in 2013.
“If you vote to privatize your school, that will be the last public decision you will make regarding education,” Mathis said.
Roper said that the public schools model does not serve the needs of every student.
“The public school model is supposed to educate all, but it only educates some,” Roper said.
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