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Education Report Spurs Debate

As Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca leaves his job at the end of this year, one of his final reports is sparking debate between the Ethan Allen Institute, a think tank that promotes free-market policies, and the Public Assets Institute, which champions publicly funded education.

The first face-off was at Lyndon State College on Dec. 13.  

In a report based on the findings of a summer study committee, Vilaseca opposes any privatization of public schools – a move taken last year by the voters of North Bennington.

He recommends requiring private schools accepting public tuition to provide all services public schools must provide, including free lunch. And he wants to limit the ability of local taxpayers to approve tuition raises paid to private schools by publicly funded students. But at Friday’s debate, Rob Roper, President of the Ethan Allen Institute, argued for school choice.

“A one-size fits-all model, in reality, fits very few, and it’s not fair for a child to have to struggle in an environment which is ill suited to his or her personality, abilities or disabilities, or simply comfort level if  a better choice can be made available,” Roper told the audience.

Debaters for the Public Assets Institute countered that sending tax money to independent schools weakens public education. Paul Cillo is founder of the Public Assets Institute. He warned that privatizing public schools is anti-democratic and financially unwise.

“Whoever controls the purse strings controls the institution. Community public schools give you a say in how much money is spent for your children’s education,” Cillo said.

Cillo’s debating partner was Bill Mathis, of the National Education Policy Center. Mathis said too many public schools around the country are being closed or privatized by large, for-profit corporations that strip local communities of the power to govern their schools.

“If you vote to privatize your school that’s the last public decision your town will ever make on education,” Mathis said.

But the founder of a private school in Lyndonville said Mathis was raising a specter of corporate take-over of public schools that has not and never will happen in Vermont.  Tim Thompson said that public and private schools should be allowed to complement each other in a state where not every town can afford to build and fund its own public school system. Lyndonville's Riverside School, Thompson said, is an example of community action for the greater good.

“From the beginning what we said was, we’re really about quality and excellence. What we really want to see is we want to see the kids meet their potential,” Thompson said.

The majority of Vermont towns operate public schools, but about a third allow students to use public funding to attend a private school of their choice. Neither debate team proposed changing that law.

But the questions raised in outgoing Secretary Vilaseca’s report, about how that tax money should be spent and what private schools should be required to do to get it, is likely to spark debate in the next legislative session. There will also be two more public debates between the Ethan Allen and Public Assets Institutes this winter. 

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