Vermont Education Board Tries to Suppress Choice Poll

Published May 1, 2009

Ninety percent of parents responding to a Vermont poll said they would choose to homeschool their children or send them to private, charter, or virtual schools over public schools.

The state board of education responded by closing its mind, asking board members not to take the results into consideration when debating school reform proposals on February 17.

The poll’s findings were released February 12 by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and nonprofit Vermonters for Better Education, based in Woodbury.

Panic at Board Level

Retta Dunlap, executive director of Vermonters for Better Education, was amazed by the board’s extraordinary decision.

“This all started last August when I asked Chris Robbins [a board member whose term has since expired] if the state board of education would be willing to sponsor this poll outlining what school Vermonters would like to send their children to,” Dunlap said. “I received an email from the chair of the board and also Mr. Robbins saying yes, they would sponsor this poll.”

After the poll was completed in October, Vermonters for Better Education sent the embargoed results to the state board and asked member Tom James to participate in the press conference accompanying their release.

“But they panicked when they saw nine out of 10 Vermonters would not choose public schools,” Dunlap said. “I suspect they were like, ‘Whoa, how can we sponsor a poll like this? Would it not be a slap in the face to public schools, to ‘our people in the field’ if we supported this poll?'”

The state board of education did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Discouraging Dismissal

Perhaps even more extraordinary, Dunlap said, was that Robbins, the former member, asked the board to vote on the poll during a videotaped meeting.

“He said to them, ‘We need to acknowledge [this] as a valid poll,'” said Dunlap, and he asked for them simply to acknowledge the findings, not necessarily endorse them. “That measure lost 3 to 4. The chair did not vote.”

Paul DiPerna, director of partner services for the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation, was equally dismayed, calling the board’s out-of-hand dismissal of the survey results “discouraging.”

“It speaks volumes,” DiPerna said.

History of Cooperation

DiPerna was particularly amazed that this happened in Vermont, which has a long history of good public interaction with private schools.

“Vermont has one of the oldest school choice programs in the country, called ‘town tuitioning,'” DiPerna explained. “When a school district does not have a middle or high school for its residents’ children, then it will pay tuition for the child to attend a private or public school in a neighboring area or district. This system has been in place for more than 100 years, but few people outside of the state know about it. It is one viable model for school choice.”

The town tuitioning program, DiPerna said, may be one reason 90 percent of the poll respondents favor school choice.

“This longstanding system has no doubt penetrated the culture of schooling in the state,” DiPerna said. “I believe parents like having options for their schooling. This is consistent from the findings from our state survey. It is a shame that public officials dismiss public opinion outright.”

Growing Backlash

Dunlap thinks public outrage over the state board of education’s shocking dismissal of the poll will only intensify. DiPerna agrees.

“We are confident the people of Vermont will speak up and have their voices heard, particularly if public officials continue to find ways to try and silence them,” DiPerna said.

“In some ways, this situation brings to mind one of Newton’s laws of physics, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” DiPerna said. “The more aggressive and energetic the actions of state leaders to quash public opinion and popular sentiment, the more likely it is that activists and voters will be energized to push back or throw out their public officials.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information …

“Vermont’s Opinion on K-12 Education and School Choice,” by Paul DiPerna, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, February 12, 2009: