How can Vermonters get equal or better educational outcomes for their children, with fewer taxpayer dollars?
That intriguing question has rarely if ever been squarely posed. A State Board of Education's policy commission is laboring to produce "transformation" policies, with no attention to what those policies might cost taxpayers.
A legislatively-created committee (a majority of which are teacher union-dependent) is currently trying to find an affordable way to finance the current system of education. It's not unreasonable to suspect that it will recommend offloading current education expenses (notably health insurance) onto some other taxpayer account, plus creating a new mega-organization in the name of (supposed) "greater efficiencies in delivery."
A completely different approach is that of the Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value. This private sector commission, created by the Ethan Allen Institute, consists of 15 former superintendents, principals, school board and Senate education committee members, and PhDs. 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.
In his foreword to the report, Robbins says "The fundamental premise of this report is that 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 $1,450 million 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."
"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."
"Instead of enlarging and fortifying the "system", we recommend deconstructing the current 'system" and rebuilding it based on the needs and desires of parents and students."
The new report, entitled Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars, includes a detailed economic analysis of today's public education system. That analysis 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 "the great majority of parents and children have the capacity to identify the kind of education most suitable to their children's needs and preferences, and 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, as is now done in 90 Vermont tuition towns. It advocates creation of charter schools, now in operation in forty other states, and more virtual schooling. It supports tax credits for Student Tuition Organizations (to fund scholarships to faith-based schools), and Education Freedom Districts (where voters could create their own education models).
The Commission also recommends that compliance with the Federal special education mandate be made a responsibility of the State Department of Education. It would contract with appropriate providers, including public schools, for free and appropriate services for eligible students, and defend against lawsuits.
A table in the report suggests that if parents chose to send only 20 percent of today's public school children to independent schools and other educational programs costing typically half the per pupil cost of comparable public schools, education spending would decrease by $81 million a year.
A 2008 Friedman Foundation poll revealed that 89% of Vermont voters favored independent, charter, virtual or home schooling over traditional public schools. If parents acted on those preferences, the savings to taxpayers could be as much as three times that amount.
Moving to a competition and choice model, the report says, "will stimulate a vibrant, dynamic educational marketplace that will help our children acquire the skills they need to flourish in the 21st century, and put Vermont on the nation's map as a hotbed of imagination, innovation, and achievement."
Such a shift would, of course, force many of our near-monopoly public schools to reshape their policies and programs, to keep on attracting revenue-paying students. This will stimulate furious opposition from the least imaginative and most security-conscious public school officials, plus the Vermont-NEA 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.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org) and served as a member of the Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value.