• School consolidation, charters and choice
    July 25,2014

    Vermonters moan about their steadily rising education property taxes, especially as the number of students continually decreases. Rarely do citizens focus clearly on the causes of rising school taxes and the possible solutions. That is, in part, because the “education stakeholders” are ever alert to control the agenda for “reform.”

    Their time-worn offering this year was governance reform. That means grouping towns into large “regional education districts,” at first through incentives, then by state mandate. This legislation collapsed in the final days of the 2014 session, in part because the House leadership realized that members who voted for it might not do so well with their voters in November.

    But the regional educational districts bill will certainly be back in 2015. Like regional waste management districts, REDs will be governed by — well, nobody really knows who governs such districts. It won’t be town voters, because the district won’t belong to them. It will “belong” to the Agency of Education, superintendents and, of course, the Vermont-NEA, well organized across district lines. And, interestingly, even backers of the districts shy away from promising that consolidation will reduce anybody’s property tax burden.

    The most obvious reason education costs are rising faster than Washington devalues the dollar is that government monopolies, financed by taxpayers and facing little or no competitive pressure, bulk up with regulations and bureaucracy that keeps creating more things for themselves to do, regardless of whether it improves the output of well-educated young people.

    Vermonters should be asking: “Can’t we find a better model that gives children more value from a given amount of tax dollars?”

    Consider the contrasting model from, of all places, the District of Columbia. It has 113 public schools and 107 public charter schools. It also has the Opportunity Scholarship Program, sending 1,556 low-income students, almost entirely minorities, to 54 public and nonpublic (including faith-based) independent schools. The scholarship program remains small because of the bitter opposition of the Obama administration and the teachers union, because it gives low-income parents genuine choice.

    Far more important are Washington’s public charter schools, which compete for publicly financed students. These range from the seven campuses of the academically focused Knowledge is Power Program to African-American and Latino-themed schools to schools focusing on arts and music.

    Three years ago my grandson, now 16, and his parents spent a day at a Washington, D.C., school fair where dozens of traditional and charter schools made their pitches to recruit eighth-graders. They selected the School Without Walls charter school, which offers college classes and an associate degree from adjacent George Washington University, along with the charter school diploma.

    In New York City, the teachers union has thrown up every obstacle it can find to prevent charter school competition with traditional (unionized) public schools. But in Washington, and in Houston and San Jose, California, creative partnerships are emerging.

    The students at Washington’s homegrown Achievement Prep are outpacing students at its competitors in Ward 8 by as much as 40 points on the district’s assessment exams. The charter school is negotiating to take over and operate a failing public school. When was the last time you heard of a Vermont public school being merged or going out of business for poor performance? Probably once (Winhall).

    Vermont is one of only eight states that have never had charter school legislation. The Legislature created a charter school study committee in 2001. Gov. Howard Dean was, at the time, an outspoken opponent of the charter school idea. He named enough Vermont-NEA representatives to the committee to cause it to reject charter schools on a 7-4 vote.

    The teachers union militantly opposes any option for a student to escape unionized public schools for non-union alternative schools of any kind. (Dean has more recently been quoted favorably on the subject, now that he doesn’t need Vermont-NEA votes.)

    Are charter schools practical in a rural state like Vermont, and would they reduce the school property tax burden? That would depend on the details, which vary dramatically among the charter states. It’s likely that a well-designed charter law would at least flatten out the spending curve, which would be a welcome achievement. An even more welcome achievement would be universal parental choice, for which charter schools would likely increase political support.

    Charter schools would be another step toward educational opportunity based not on government-run regional education monopolies, but on genuine parental choice among many varied public and independent providers. That is the way toward better educational value for fewer taxpayer dollars.

    John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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