Choice Gives Students the Opportunity to Be Themselves
Julie Hansen
Published in the Caldedonian-Record
Monday, January 22, 2018

This week celebrates National School Choice; a gathering is scheduled in Montpelier mid-week with the hope of impressing upon our legislature that school choice is an optimistic and viable option for the education of our children.

The event is part of the ongoing conversation that the independent schools and the agency of education have engaged in for quite some time and one that remains at about where it was ten years ago. The democratic lawmakers hold that opening the educational landscape to include independent schools will benefit only the privileged tier of the Vermont population. They live in the echo chamber of a well-funded education bureaucracy, hearing daily that only wealthy and educated parents will choose the right school for their children, leaving behind the working class or poor student.  Another refrain is that independent schools “cream” only the best students for acceptance.

Their most heartfelt argument is that public schools, and confining the population to the public schools, is the foundation and key to the preservation of American democracy.

These arguments sound compelling: egalitarian and inclusive, formulated to appeal to our finest ideals.

But there is no evidence to support these arguments. The economic argument, aside from its classist echo, falls apart under easy scrutiny. Independent school leaders have testified about the working families who sacrifice to send to their children to a school other than their designated public school. They choose the independent school because they don’t feel their unique child is safe in the public school and they will do whatever they need to do to place their child in an environment that will allow their child to just be: to be gay, to be transgender, to be an introvert, to be an active learner, to be a quiet learner, to be . . . They just want their child to be able to go to school and feel that they are respected and safe.

This holds true in states that allow charter school choice. Research provides data that high achieving students tend not to transfer to charter schools. Choice works for those for whom one methodology does not work. Achievement levels improve once students find the school culture and expectations that fit them. This becomes even more important when a struggling student is quickly identified as a learning disabled student. Not all struggling students have a learning disability.

This is not to say that there are not public schools who work to ensure that all children are recognized and honored. But in those situations where the student is floundering, parents should have the guaranteed right to find the school that works for their child. The state funding should support their quest if, indeed, they believe that all children have a right to access all educational opportunities.

Vermont’s continuing achievement gap between economically advantaged students and those who live in a different economic level seems to prove the point that independent schools are making. The preservation of democracy rests in diverse approaches to education, not one. It rests in ensuring that all families, not just the privileged few, have options for the education of their children.

The Brazilian educator, Pablo Friere, said that “to glorify democracy and silence the people is a farce.” Isn’t it time to listen to the people?