Dave Sharpe’s recent op-ed on reasons for public school failure is special interest propaganda.
by Rob Roper
Former Representative Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol) recently penned a truly execrable op-ed blaming private schools, lack of funding for public schools, and 60s era “white-flight” for the persistent and growing performance gap between higher income students and those living in poverty. He opened his piece exclaiming, “It’s no surprise….”
Well, it’s no surprise to anyone who witnessed Sharpe’s four years as chair of the House Education Committee, 2015-2018!
Sharpe’s biggest “accomplishment” in the role was to shepherd through Act 46, the disastrous school consolidation bill that has since done nothing its supporters said it would (lower education costs, increase student opportunities, and boost outcomes), and many things its supporters promised it wouldn’t, such as force the closings of many small schools.
The law was/is so bad that Sharpe himself tried to cover his own butt with an op-ed in January 2020 claiming that he and his fellow lawmakers were “hoodwinked into permitting a power grab” by the Principal’s Association, School Boards Association, Superintendents Association, and other public school special interests.
As one who was in the room for a lot of that debate, I can tell you that Sharpe wasn’t hoodwinked, he was aiding and abetting the power grab by hoodwinking the public every step of the way. And he’s at it again aiding and abetting the same special interest group’s current attempt at a power grab with this latest piece of propaganda.
First Sharpe argues,
This trend [in outcome disparities] started in the late ’60s when communities were required to integrate their public schools. Relatively quickly, white flight from public schools began in the racially divided southern states.
A couple points. First, this has nothing to do with Vermont which was in the ’60 even more homogeneously White than it is even today. So, White flight from public schools just wasn’t a thing here; there was no one to flee from. Second, the percentage of students attending private schools nationwide has been pretty steady at around ten percent since the 60s. (Statistica) So, no, parents fleeing public schools to private schools was not a trend. He goes on…
As more and more white parents found ways to circumvent the rules by placing their students in private schools, there was less and less interest in properly funding public schools. The underfunded public schools found it more and more difficult to provide quality education to their students.
This is just absurd. Fist, how is placing your child in a private school “circumventing the rules”? As noted above, roughly 10 percent of total parents put their kids in private schools, but 22% of public school teachers make that choice for their own kids. That should tell you something!
But as to Sharpe’s funding assertion, according to National Center for Educational Statistics, average per pupil spending has increased in constant 2018-19 dollars every year from 1960 ($4060) to 2009-10 ($15,232). After that, spending leveled off, bumping up and down to $15,424 by 2016-17, the final year they provide data. But Vermont defied this leveling off trend and shot to where we are today as the state with the second highest per-pupil spending in the country at $23,423. So, no, despite Sharpe’s crocodile tears, spending isn’t the problem underlying the increasing failure of Vermont’s public schools to provide quality education to our kids.
Then Sharpe attempts to blame Vermont’s oldest in the nation school choice system and the independent schools that actually are doing a good job of educating Vermont’s students.
This inequality existed in Vermont as well, particularly in the roughly 90 school districts that provided vouchers for their secondary students…. Parents want the best for their children and many have used the private school subsidies when they can afford it. The once racially motivated separation of white children and black children has developed in Vermont as a separation between children who live in families of means and those living in poverty.
In a polite word, baloney.
All parents in Vermont’s 90 tuitioning towns, from the richest to the poorest, use their tuitioning voucher to send their kids to school that best suits their needs. It’s not just the rich kids in tuitioning towns who get to attend top performing schools like St. Johnsbury Academy or Burr & Burton – all of them do. Fully at taxpayer expense, and at a cost significantly lower than we spend on the average public school student. And if those schools aren’t the best fit for their kid, parents can choose from a menu of other independent and public schools to choose from – again entirely at (almost always lower) taxpayer expense. To imply that a family can only utilize this benefit if they can afford it is a flat out lie. It is arguably the most equitable education system in the nation. Every family should have access to it.
Sharpe trots out…
In addition, the rules under which schools provide education for Vermont children are different for public and private schools. One example is, private schools only need to admit students that they deem “fit” into their culture. If a child is more costly to educate, or perhaps is disruptive in the school, that child may be sent back to the local town for the educational services they need.
First of all, every Vermont school, public or independent, that accepts taxpayer dollars is subject to state and federal anti-discrimination laws. So, no school in our tuitioning system is turning kids away for race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. It is true that unlike public schools, independent schools are “mission driven,” meaning they adhere to a certain educational philosophy. And, no, not every family or kid is the right fit for, say, a Waldorf or Montessori approach to learning. It is a good thing that kids who don’t learn well in a specific educational environment aren’t forced to attend there and are free – and encouraged and enabled — to find a school that better fits their needs. It is truly sociopathic to insist that a school retain a child for whom they know they aren’t structured to provide a constructive learning experience.
In fact, the real problem with our public school system is that it forces kids who do not learn well in the environment they are mandated by zip code to attend every day regardless of their inability to learn in that environment – or be mentally healthy — to stay there year after year and fail.
In severe cases where, as Sharpe notes, students are “disruptive” these students inhibit the ability of other children in the classroom to learn. This isn’t a glitch, it is a design feature of a dysfunctional system that is unfair to everyone in the building – the kids who aren’t getting the kind of services they need, the kids who can’t learn (and in some cases experiencing trauma) because of the disruption, and the teachers who aren’t trained or capable of properly dealing with such a wide spectrum of needs in their classrooms. This is our public school model, and it’s a recipe for large-scale failure. So, it’s failing.
Sharpe lies again when he says,
A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court requires states that pay tax dollars to private schools for educating the children in their state, must also remit those tax dollars to religious schools. This decision exacerbates the lack of tax dollars to fund public schools and contributes to the crippling of our public school students.
No. Students who go to now available religious schools with tuitioning vouchers by definition already live in tuitioning towns and have the option of attending non-religious independent schools anyway. Their voucher amount doesn’t change. It doesn’t impact public school funding at all. In fact, there are only 53 Vermont students out of 80,000 in K-12 who currently use tuitioning to attend religious schools. This is not an issue.
Sharpe lastly takes aim at Vermont’s efforts to expand publicly funded Pre-K as a “system that favors families of means.” And here he has a point. Vermont’s government-run Pre-K efforts have been a disaster in terms of equity, cost to taxpayers, and negative impacts on kids, both emotionally and educationally. But the solution Sharpe is lobbying for is a public school takeover of the birth to five childcare – a power grab (and a massive money grab) by all those same special interests that got Sharpe to giftwrap them Act 46. This will be a horrible outcome for kids and taxpayers. Don’t be hoodwinked again.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience in Vermont politics including three years service as chair of the Vermont Republican Party and nine years as President of the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont’s free market think tank.