McClaughry: Education Reform Report

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(HOST) Commentator John McClaughry is Vice President of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization, that recently sponsored a commission to study the future of education in Vermont.

(MCCLAUGHRY) What direction will Vermont education take in the coming two decades? That’s the subject of a visionary report released last month by the 15-member private sector Commission on Rebalancing Educational Cost and Value, created by the Ethan Allen Institute. Its chair is Chris Robbins, who just completed a six year term on the State Board of Education and is also the current Chair of VSAC. Entitled Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars, the new report offers a dramatically unconventional approach – saving tax dollars by giving parents choice among a wide variety of educational opportunities.

In his foreword to the report, Chairman Robbins says "a policy of creating an ever-enlarging ‘system’, directed from the top down, populated with thousands of teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats, controlling the annual expenditure of $1.4 billion  taxpayer dollars, jealously protective of the benefits enjoyed by the people employed in the ‘system’, and dismissive of the abilities and preferences of parents and children, is a policy headed off in a  totally wrong direction."

Robbins continued, "Such a policy will, ultimately, and despite the best intentions of many persons within that system, shortchange our students, defeat the preferences of many parents, and spend ever escalating amounts of taxpayer dollars for little or no added educational benefit."

The Commission’s report presents an economic analysis of the education system and concludes that "it is very clear than Vermonters – taxpayers and parents – are not getting their money’s worth from our very high per pupil education spending. It is also clear that this spending trend is unsustainable."

The Commission believes that "public financial support for education should flow not through overgrown and nonproductive bureaucracies, but directly through the consumers to a wide array of educational providers, some public, some private, that attract revenues by offering a product that their customers want."

The Commission recommends giving tuition certificates to students instead of payments to schools. It advocates creation of charter schools and more virtual schooling. It supports tax credits to fund scholarships to faith-based schools, and Education Freedom Districts,  where local citizens could create their own education models.

Moving to a competition and choice model would force many of our near-monopoly public schools to reshape their policies and programs, to keep on attracting revenue-paying students. This will stimulate intense opposition from the least imaginative and most security-conscious public school officials, and the teachers union.

That’s understandable. But most parents and taxpayers probably believe that they – as well as our schoolchildren – will benefit more from dynamic 21st century competition and choice in education, than paying ever more to keep the 20th century monopoly system alive.

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