Vaughn Altemus: School Choice and the Collapse of Civic Culture

This comment is from Vaughn Altemus of Williston, who retired from the Vermont Agency of Education after spending 19 years on the finance team. Part of the time, he was responsible for helping school boards consider governance changes.

Vermont public education faces an unprecedented threat. In June 2020, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana expanded the requirement to provide public funding to religious schools.

However, as Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify certain private schools just because they are religious.

This recognition that states do not have to fund private schools is the thin reed that now protects public education. This slender reed also preserves the right of states to prevent discrimination. The reed is slender as Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the court makes John Roberts’ vote to form a majority unnecessary.

Vermont law allows school districts that do not operate public schools to pay tuition vouchers to loosely regulated private schools. Therefore, federal appeals courts ordered districts in Vermont to also pay vouchers to religious schools.

The Vermont Senate’s response was to impose some requirements for providing guardrails. If schools don’t require attendance at church services and find another reason not to hire LGBTQ people or exclude children of LGBTQ parents, the Senate expects all to be well. The Senate thinks students in good districts will have a bit more choice.

The critical point that the choice lobby tries to obscure is that the decision is a district choice and not a parental choice. Districts can designate up to three schools (public or private) to serve as public schools for their children (although private schools are not required to accept the designation) or they can allow a wider choice.

I have worked with school boards across the state for many years as they reviewed their governance structures. The loving care with which school boards seek to provide their students makes it painful to read John McClaughry’s assertion that the education provided under the supervision of these boards conforms to the dictates of a conspiracy outside the school. ‘State.

His reference to the power of the “VT Government Schools Lobby” begs to be compared to the millions of dollars spent each year nationwide to lobby for universal choice and privatization of schools.

Vouchers have largely escaped the radar of most voters, as most voters live in communities that operate public schools. But numerous cases seeking to expand choice, at least three in Vermont, are currently pending in court. One seeks to mandate access to private schools in all districts – a flagrant attack on local voice. Victory would mean vouchers in every district.

And now, voucher programs must include religious schools, and it’s increasingly unclear that states can have a say in what happens in religious schools. A Maine case related to whether Maine can regulate voucher payments to religious schools, Carson v. Makin, reached the Supreme Court. A similar case in Vermont is in litigation, under preliminary injunction, until an opinion is rendered in the Maine case. The decision could have profound implications for Vermont.

Does it matter? We are confident that parents who choose the best schools, public or private, for their students will produce the best education for Vermont children. And competition with private schools will force public schools to become less expensive and provide an education that more closely reflects the wishes of parents.

The argument is wrong. To assess the impact of students leaving a school district, it is important to understand the difference between average cost and marginal cost. If a district has 100 students and spends $1,500,000 to educate them, the average cost to educate one student is $15,000.

Much more relevant is the cost of losing or gaining one more student. How much does a district save if a student leaves? It will heat the same buildings, employ the same teachers and staff, maintain the same computer and accounting systems. A school that loses a handful of students saves virtually nothing but generates a higher tax rate. The reverse is true for a district or independent school gaining a student.

Imagine this school losing five students when universal choice was introduced. Perhaps meager savings can be made. Assuming students attend an independent school with a modest tuition of $12,000, the cost to the district is $60,000. So a cost of $60,000 and savings of virtually nothing.

It’s getting worse. According to the invisible hand theory of school choice, the district should make itself more attractive to increase enrollment. Will he raise salaries to attract more quality teachers? Will it introduce an exciting new program? Perhaps this will reduce class sizes to compete with private schools with lower ratios.

People would be wise to consider the impact of competition on the cost of higher education in recent years.

It is almost certain that a district with declining enrollment caused by universal choice will do the same thing as districts with declining enrollment caused by a declining student population: postpone maintenance and reduce programs. It is important to recognize the threat that universal choice poses to public education.

If a school has 50 students enrolled and five decide to leave, it retains 90%. How many more will follow when funding cuts become apparent?

Unfortunately, universal choice transforms public education from a system of shared governance, where communities strive to provide an excellent education for all students, to a system of individual decisions, in which families are forced to fight for access, the better-off doing better.

The more we privatize expensive essential services like education, the more it becomes like health care and childcare: expensive, poorly paid and inequitable.

In a privatized world of education, the options available to parents will be neither fair nor equitable. Nor will it be affordable. A few safeguards will only offer a thin veneer to appease easy consciences. Working-class families may have no choice, or choose from less well-funded schools. If a school closes, the “choice” may be to find any school within reach.

The wealthy can take their vouchers wherever they want, paying extra tuition if they feel like it.

The late Bob Fingon, for many years Rutland City District Business Manager, tracked the reasons students were transferred to the district. Number 1 was Division 1 sports. Number 2 was convenience for working parents in Rutland. If ever there was a reason to destroy small town civic culture, this would be it.

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Tags: Carson c. Makin, District Choice, Espinoza v. Montana, private schools, school choice, threat to public education, tuition vouchers, Vaughn Altemus


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