Brigham, Five Years Later

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Five years ago this month, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down the Brigham decision. The decision was praised and vilified. Some said the court exhibited great wisdom and courage. Others said the court had erred in its judgment.

The New York Times reported that Vermont was “riven by revolution”. The observation was a bit of hyperbole. But The Times was right in one respect. There was a revolution. But it was a nonviolent one.

The revolution came in the way that Vermonters were asked to think about children’s education. We were asked to extend our vision for kids’ schooling beyond our individual towns, to the entire state. We were asked to take on a sense of collective responsibility to guarantee equal access to the fundamental right of public education.

There have been endless twists and turns in the implementation of Act 60, the law passed to meet the equity provisions of the Brigham decision. But a few stark truths are evident as we mark the fifth anniversary of Brigham.

The most important truth is the huge gulf that can exist between knowing what is right, and doing what is right. No opponent of Act 60 — from the fiercest critic on down — has ever disagreed with the Supreme Court’s determination that Vermont children must have equal educational opportunities. The challenge has been in how to make that happen.

Another truth is that doing the right thing may be good public policy, but it can be lousy politics. People don’t like change. They’re comfortable with the known, and they’re fearful of the unknown. They will remain skeptical of change — even, sometimes, if they benefit. They may thank you by voting you out of office.

A third truth. Even good people sometimes do ill-advised things. People who themselves have benefitted from public education, or who benefit from others who are educated in public schools, have opposed the law that has tried to bring education fairness.

A final truth. People don’t like to pay for something that they already have. Public education is a front-loaded benefit. We receive it, as children, for free. As adults, we don’t like to acknowledge that we have a responsibility to put something back in the bank. We resent the bills that fall due.

We are told that as a nation we have a very difficult time making long-term investments. We think of the present, and would rather not be bothered by the past or the future. The notion that we plant a tree so that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can enjoy its shade is foreign to us.

The Vermont Supreme Court was forced to issue the Brigham decision because we had lost our way in looking out for all of our citizens. In the decision, the court spoke with laser clarity on the fundamental issue of fairness. And that fairness is not based on a laissez-faire notion of leaving your neighbor alone. It’s based on an older truth — treating your neighbor as you yourself would like to be treated. That’s really what equal rights are all about.

This is Allen Gilbert.

–Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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