On October 5, 2023

Poverty limits school success


 By David Sharpe

Editor’s note: David Sharpe of Bristol is a former long-time member of the Vermont House of Representatives, where he chaired the Education Committee. 

It’s no surprise that the latest educational report of the widening gap in student performance in Vermont’s public schools is between students of means and those who live in poverty.

This trend 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. 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 was especially true of students who required additional resources. Since public schools struggled to provide quality education, their students graduated with insufficient skills to be successful in the evermore sophisticated United States economy.

This inequality existed in Vermont as well, particularly in the roughly 90 school districts that provided vouchers for their secondary students. It also existed in towns with lower property values. Vermont has tried to level the playing field by enacting Act 60 as mandated by the Vermont Supreme Court. Although the gap in funding between wealthy communities and poorer community has narrowed, the spread out increased tax requirements has tended to curtail the budgets of public schools throughout Vermont. 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 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. Notably, there are private schools in Vermont that are committed to educating all the students in a community; as we note that quality we must also note that the private schools that are educating all students also strongly support and lobby for the rules that permit private schools to be choosey about who they accept as students.

Although bills have been introduced to address the privileged rules under which private schools operate, they have gone nowhere. It’s my view that there currently exists in the Vermont Legislature a sufficient number of legislators who support private schools and a well-funded lobbying effort to thwart any change in those rules.

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.

There has been a lot of conversation and lobbying to fund preschools. Unfortunately, the well-funded preschool lobbying effort has succeeded in securing significant new funding for a preschool system that favors families of means. Children of families that have the ability to pay the difference between the voucher and the cost of the preschool and the ability to transport their children to and from the preschool at odd hours will have the full benefit of the preschool experience while children in poverty will enter kindergarten even further behind.

It is not a surprise that the educational gap between the children of families of means and those who live in poverty has grown. The gap has always been there primarily because families of means, by definition, have the ability to give their children educational opportunities at every turn in their young lives. Once behind, it takes twice the effort to catch up. It’s yet to be seen if Vermont has the courage and ability to do the work necessary to truly give all children the benefit of a quality education.

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