The Only Thing to Fear

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(Host) Student testing and school choice are back in the news and commentator Jeff Wennberg advises us not to be afraid.

(Wennberg) Somebody once said that people won’t embrace reform until their fear of the status quo surpasses their fear of change. When it comes to Vermont education policy, there are some folks who exploit this philosophy of fear.

Last week Governor Dean threatened to decline $26 million in new federal aid destined for Vermont schools. To qualify for the aid, President Bush’s education program requires annual reading and math testing of students in grades 3 through 8. Because Vermont currently tests students in only three grades, Dean says the added testing will cost the state “$50 to $60 million.”

Wait a minute – $50 to $60 MILLION? Vermont has about 46,000 students in grades 3 through 8. That’s over $1,000 per year per kid tested. This is about ten times what these tests ought to cost. And wouldn’t we save the money we’re spending on the current tests?

So either the Governor is relying upon the Tax Department to do his calculations, or he’s inflating the numbers to hide the real reason he doesn’t want to test. The Associated Press article which announced his threat contained a clue as to what I suspect is his real concern: “[Dean] said about 30% of Vermont public schools would be considered “failing” under Bush’s definition because scores aren’t rising quickly enough, even though the schools are performing well.”

Could it be that Governor Dean and the Department of Education would find it awkward to explain why Vermont, with some of the most expensive public schools in the nation and one of the lowest pupil-teacher ratios, finds nearly a third of its schools failing the federal standard?

This philosophy of fear surfaced again in a study of a pilot school choice program in Rutland. The authors concluded, “if money followed the child, many small high schools in Vermont would no longer be fiscally or programmatically viable.” In the interest of disclosure, I currently serve as president of Vermonters for Educational Choice, and my bias is well known. But so is that of those who prepared the report. Their opposition to school choice did not dissuade many in the Legislature or the media from repeating the findings as though they were fact. The message? Be afraid; be very afraid.

With only 63 choice students out of a total population of 3,216, the report’s findings rest upon the thinnest of statistical ice. Here’s another explanation for the migration patterns: students are drawn to schools with a reputation for excellence. Unfortunately, the study never asked the students what they thought of the participating schools. Curiously absent from the executive summary and the drumbeat in the press was the following result: when asked, “were you satisfied with your [school choice] experience,” 97 percent said “yes”. Nothing scary there.

This is Jeff Wennberg, in Rutland.

Jeff Wennberg is a former mayor of Rutland.

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