Public Education and Privilege

Public Education and Privilege

I’ve been trying to follow the debates on all sides of Act 46 and school consolidation and am struck by how complicated the route we’ve chosen has become. I’m not surprised that people in affected communities are up in arms on both sides of the issue. A commentary by Allen Gilbert in the June 10th edition of VTDigger helped me realize again just how indecipherable for many the issue has become. When faced with complexity, I revert to basics to try and understand the whole.

Our school-age population has dropped from some 120,000 to just over 80,000 in the last few decades. Our annual birthrate has dropped from 7000 to 5300. Many Vermonters have migrated to Chittenden County or other urban commerce centers in Vermont to secure employment. Our rural schools teach in English. Winooski Middle and High School communicates to its students and their families from 25 different nationalities in no less than 19 languages.

The Vicious Act of 1892 reduced Vermont’s 2500 school boards to 279. Over 100 “standard schools” were closed and many still exist today as starter homes for young families.

In a 2015 VTDigger commentary William Mathis provided an excellent overview of Vermont’s meandering public school policy decisions, consolidations, and funding mechanisms:

The unending stream of task forces and reports continued to accumulate and weigh down shelves. Three regional intermediate units had a short life, county systems were built and abolished, and school consolidation plans came and went while the system remained virtually unchanged. By the time the 20th century ended, 20 major task forces had issued reports. Yet in 2006, apart from union high schools, the governance structure looked very much like it did in 1906.”

Demographics, economic migration, and immigration are facts of the modern age and are unlikely to change in the near term and so should be a part of our planning.

Also, the persistent tension between educational equity and privilege continues today – “I’ve got mine and want to keep it,” continues. I got into Phillips Exeter because my father went there. Today, I can use a Vermont education voucher to cover a part of the cost of sending my own offspring there if they qualify – whether I need it or not.

The impact of privilege with its magnet and charter schools, school choice, and vouchers continues to erode and stress our constitutional commitment to free public education for all, especially as social and economic woes such as mental health, abuse, addiction, healthcare cost and access, poverty, housing, nutrition, the out-migration of retail, all intensify the pressure on families and rural communities.

Privilege provides earned or inherited options to the well off, but also diminishes enrollments, leaving the public system to provide a greater array of non-educational services to children and families in need. Teachers will tell you how much harder it is to inspire learning in the child who is hungry, ill, or abused at home – if they have a home.

Exeter, to my knowledge, does not mainstream students with developmental disabilities, whereas the St. Albans school district has a 20% annual turnover rate in their student population – that is students moving in and out of the system during the school year. Geographically, Franklin County represents one ninth of the Vermont student population and one-third of the Department for Children and Families caseload.

Societal ills combine to create what former Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe refers to as “school dependency, by which she means the developing dependency of needier families on their local schools for health care, nutrition, childcare, and counselling. The young who are most vulnerable to these pressures end up in our public schools classrooms, emergency rooms, or correctional facilities, whereas those whose privilege protects them from such pressures can use public funding to pay for more restrictive private alternatives.

The lack of  affordable “childcare” has become a severe social and economic problem and current solutions look at growing a separate regulatory and physical infrastructure bridging the for-profit and not-for-profits sectors. We know that a child’s earliest years and chances of future success in school and society can be significantly enhanced by early education and organized play options. Is this not the same as public education? Shouldn’t we redefine the relevance of education to our earliest learners and repopulate our emptying classrooms?

We must revisit our commitment to a free public education system and look seriously at redefining what public education is. Privilege is intrinsic to civilization and is not, in itself, a negative unless we embed it in statutory policies that enhance and protect it from the natural social and economic inclemencies. And we must look hard at how it stresses the overall public education system.

We did our best to equalize educational equity in Brigham, but now we have a new challenge. Our democracy cannot afford to get this wrong.