Column: Let independent schools demonstrate their value

By STEVE NELSON

For the Valley News

Published: 04-03-2023 9:51 AM

Whew! The educational landscape is certainly being affected by climate change. Political climate, that is. In the Twin States the issues are volatile, although quite different depending on which side of the Connecticut River.

On the east side, the New Hampshire Legislature and Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut are just plain nuts, intent on making New Hampshire into Florida of the North. They seem intent on dismantling public education entirely and incarcerating teachers who broach “divisive concepts” or fail to rat out kids to their parents if they use the wrong pronoun. I’ll leave that there. The absurdity and possible outcomes are more than adequately covered in a Valley News editorial last month.

To the west, the issues are less idiotic, but no less complex. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin has challenged Vermont’s long public support of independent schools that serve students from communities without their own school. Carson v. Makin requires any state that supports secular private schools to also support religious schools. The Supreme Court is apparently blind to this rather obvious violation of the Establishment Clause, but their blindness has opened a can of worms for Vermont educators and legislators, few of whom wish to fund religious schools with public funds.

In response to the dilemma, proposed legislation (S.66 and H.258) would severely circumscribe the existing muddle of tuition dollars flowing to all manner of private schools. One representative casualty could be The Sharon Academy (TSA). According to its administration, TSA would face closure, as 80% of its tuition revenue is public support through the existing scheme.

The Valley News recently reprinted a letter that Jay Badams, superintendent of Hanover and Norwich schools, wrote to Vermont legislators. Badams disclosed that his wife is an educator at TSA, which must make for lively dinner table conversation, as Badams’s position could lead to TSA’s closure.

My own relevant disclosures: I was head of a progressive independent school in Manhattan for 19 years. My Sharon, Vt., son attended Hanover High School, by way of the existing scheme. My granddaughter attended St. Johnsbury Academy.

Badams suggested several ways out of the dilemma, some serious, others sarcastic.

One option would be to let S.66 and HB.258 fizzle and keep the status quo. He does not mention that this would open the floodgates of public dollars flowing to religious schools, which I suspect he would not support.

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Another is to stop all support of independent schools and let them sink or swim in the capricious tides of the free market.

His most viable suggestion was to develop a process for independent schools, such as TSA, to be chartered by the state, subject to the same state regulations as other public schools, i.e.: local budget approval and oversight, testing and public accountability, licensing for faculty and administrators, etc. If an independent school, like TSA, didn’t wish to comply, they could join the sink or swim competition. A recent VN commentary by South Royalton’s Geo Honigford made essentially the same argument.

There may be another way.

Progressive schools, like the one I led and TSA, are not elitist or exclusive by philosophy or design. I would argue — have argued in scores of articles and a book — that the missions of such schools are more consistent with contemporary knowledge of cognition and child development. Allowing the current, very real, dilemma to shutter a school like TSA would be like plowing over a flower bed because it didn’t conform to the cornfield.

Like Badams, I am a passionate supporter of public education and an opponent of most forms of school choice and voucher schemes, which are intended, as Badams acknowledges, to destroy the secular public system.

But rather than insist that a Zinnia be a cornstalk, why not make reasonable space for something different? I agree that receipt of public funding should be accompanied by oversight and accountability. But there are alternate methods of assuring taxpayers.

Progressive schools resist standardized testing, not because of stubborn ideology, but because testing regimens can drive harmful practices.

Why not allow a school like TSA to demonstrate its methods of assessment and the scientific and philosophical bases for its practices? Progressive schools often hire teachers who are not traditionally accredited. Why not allow a school like TSA to provide evidence of a non-traditional teacher’s unique qualifications and contributions to student growth and success?

Badams and others seem to imply that schools like my former school or TSA don’t really have methods of assessing student growth or teacher quality. In my school’s case, student demonstrations of learning, complex projects, narrative assessments and self-evaluations provided a much richer portrait of learning and progress than any state exam. Teachers went through annual reviews, periodic portfolio reviews of curricula, and peer evaluations as well as student feedback.

As Badams suggests, establishing a chartering system to provide a path for schools like TSA should be relatively easy. But allow them to demonstrate worthiness according to their own mission and practices, not the precise standards encoded in state regulations. In fact, perhaps Vermont’s public system could learn something from the rich traditions of progressive education.

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