I’ve been thinking a great deal about choice lately. For those who know me and have had the misfortune of being in my physical vicinity, perseverating may be a more accurate choice of words. And it is this very issue – choice of words, choice of action, taking or making choices – that I’d like to reflect on for a few paragraphs. This post will not contain a great deal of scholarly research or citations. If you are looking for something erudite, you may want to review previous colleagues’ posts. But, if you’re looking for a conversation – welcome. My husband is sick of the subject and extends his many thanks.
As Vermont educators, we have much to be proud of. We have one of the most expansive pieces of education legislation in the country, embodied in Act 77 (The Flexible Pathways Initiative), detailing Vermont students’ access to flexible pathways and right to personalized learning. We have a rigorous and progressive set of board rules embodied in the Education Quality Standards. And we have this thing called, in short, “school choice.” (See Issue Brief and 16 V.S.A §822a for more information.) In fact, our educational landscape is so unique that it has been deemed ground-breaking, progressive, innovative or, recently for some, “a radical experiment.” Our Education Quality Standards detail the expectations and requirements we believe are necessary to provide a high-quality public education. The Flexible Pathways Initiative further explicates our definition of public education in Vermont, predicated on a critical phrase and qualifier – “publicly-funded student.” Peers, scholars, and friends in other states are curious not because we offer choice or flexibility or proficiency-based education but because our public school system – all of it (the whole state, my friends) – is defined by it.
As one might expect, this requires great responsibility and careful choices on all of our parts. Not just so that we can ensure success as we proceed in our efforts to make John Dewey proud, but so that we are thoughtful stewards of a public system that once compromised may be hard to repair. As an example, in 1996, the federal government (under the Clinton administration) decided to privatize student loans. Interestingly, this happened during a time when it was popularized that all students should go to college in order to ensure future success and employment. Today, it is estimated that 42 million Americans owe $1.3 trillion in debt – all in an effort to become productive, employed citizens. (You can read a more thoughtful and informative discussion of this here.) I’m not going to elaborate on the various consequence of this decision, but needless to say it would not be unreasonable to characterize this choice as a stunning failure that has not only deepened the divide between “those who have” and “those who have not,” but also become a pernicious wedge between college borrowers and their ability to make meaningful or informed choices of their own. As private lenders and the federal government enrich themselves on Americans’ desire to learn and succeed, we find ourselves in a position that may be impossible to undo.
I will concede that continuing on in higher education is indeed a choice and not a mandate. American citizens are not required to pursue a post-secondary degree (even though most employment securing a livable wage is predicated on it). But, at least until the age of sixteen, Vermonters are required to attend school. In fact, the high premium we place on education has its roots in the Vermont Constitution of 1777 where the legislature was tasked to establish a school in each town “for the convenient instruction of youth” (Vermont Constitution and Vermont’s Tradition of Education and the Vermont Constitution). Our founding Vermonters had the prescience to build in to this essential State document access to school with the understanding that it would be the cornerstone of Vermont democracy.
It is not hard to draw a line between the late 1700s and today. In order to achieve educational equity, we must safeguard access and opportunity provided through the pooling of our collective resources. This means, that when it comes to making choices regarding our public institutions and systems, we need to be vigilant of when our individual or collective choices result in taking choices from others. Too often, when we talk about choice there is a presumption that more choice is always positive and benign. But, I think any one of us could quickly produce a short list demonstrating where making a choice, or having an abundance of choice, has resulted in (minimally) embarrassing and possibly harmful consequences for ourselves and others. I worry, especially as an educator, that the simplistic notion that more choice is always better is conveyed to our students and leaves them wholly unprepared to be engaged and responsible citizens committed to preserving our core democratic principles.
My growing concern, with all of the myriad pressures and demands placed on our public education system, is that Vermont is moving toward a system of privatized education that will, like the privatization of student loans, reify the widening gap between its citizens and communities. To be clear, this is not a critique of private (independent) school or parochial school or home school – all choices that are preserved in law. However, in Vermont (and fairly unique to this state), public education dollars (by law and rule) frequently go to the instruction of private school and home school students who have opted out of the public education system (and most of the laws and rules that govern it). For this reason, we must consider others when making educational choices, public or private, as rarely is it solely the individual who shoulders the cost.
Even more alarming, as we continue to contend with declining enrollment, fiscal pressures, and a stated desire to contain education costs and alleviate tax burdens, we have simultaneously seen a number of bills proposed to expand private use of public education dollars. We have seen proposals to increase access to education dollars for parochial school students (S.183); for the reallocation of financial and educational obligations to local education agencies (LEAs) in order to support independent schools (S.229); and to create teacher licensing exemptions for independent schools operating CTE centers (testimony on H.919). This has occurred against the backdrop of towns and communities who have had to make the painful decision to close their local schools and send their students, sometimes a great distance, to other towns – painful choices made in faith to serve the greater good.
We have a choice to make. We cannot sustain what has become, essentially, a fractured publicly-funded education system with different sets of rules for different types of schools and private partnerships. Nor can we afford to forego a close examination of the impact of “choice” on our education system overall. Not just because it is financially and systemically unsustainable, but because it risks undermining Vermont’s rich tradition of ensuring that every student has access to “convenient instruction.” I would ask that we take stock of all of the complexities interwoven in the Rochester High School example – including that 15 out of 17 students chose to attend other schools — and bear witness to the fact that for at least two students, their choice has been made for them next school year. This is not a partisan issue. Nor is it a simple issue with only one culprit. Declining enrollment is not the only issue when over 5,000 students who attend independent schools are not counted every year and could be served in the public system. If we are displeased with the educational rigor or results of our public schools let’s hold them accountable, not use “choice” as a work-around that destabilizes a cherished public institution.
An honest examination is incumbent on all of us.
Many educators state that personalized (or student-centered) learning encourages student “voice and choice.” I’ll admit I have struggled with this phrase, both in its vagaries and in its assonance. Instead, I’d invite everyone to adopt the principles of “learner agency.” Today, for all of us who believe that every person deserves a free and appropriate public education, our future requires more than just choice but autonomy and accountability. I would invite all of us to do what we ask of our students and exercise our power to act.
Jess DeCarolis is a 2009 Rowland Fellow. She lives in Groton, Vermont with her incredibly tolerant husband, Avi, and incredibly demanding and intolerant dog, Pickle.