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The real Act 60 problem

05/28/03 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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(Host) Commentator John McClaughry doesn't think that the legislative compromise on Act 60 addresses the real problem.

(McClaughry) House and Senate conferees and the Governor have agreed on a bill to lower property taxes by increasing other taxes, and to eliminate the much maligned Act 60 sharing pool.

As this process moved to its conclusion, Governor Douglas and legislative leaders of both parties increasingly intoned that there has to be cost containment. Legislators appear to have finally grasped the fact that the state is now in complete control of education spending. That's progress. Only a couple of years ago the friends of Act 60 were writing op-ed pieces bravely declaring that Act 60 had protected or even increased local control.

But what legislators have not yet grasped is that by centralizing education finance through the state, and effectively putting the state in charge of cost containment, they will be well on the way to turning Vermont into One Big School System. They are now talking about making that system more efficient through consolidating local districts, capping local spending, negotiating system-wide teacher contracts, combining facilities and purchasing all the techniques that people in charge of any big system employ to try to squeeze out inefficiencies and reduce costs.

That kind of central management inevitably leads to one-size-fits-all rules, bureaucratic decision making, expensive middle management deadwood, loss of employee initiative, and frequently poor customer service.

Instead of trying to centrally manage One Big School System, Vermont policymakers should turn to an efficient and well tested model: informed and empowered consumers choosing education that best meets their childrens' needs, from the offerings of many competing providers.

That's the only real reform that promises education responsive to the diverse needs of all Vermont children. And since competing independent schools - not to mention homeschooling - are almost always less expensive than government-run schools, injecting market principles into our billion dollar educational system is the only reform that offers any real restraint on taxpayer costs.

That would, of course, mean ending the states government-run education monopoly, and putting parents, instead of government employees, in the driver's seat. Regrettably, that is also the one solution that is not under active consideration in Montpelier.

Why? Because it attracts fierce opposition from the groups that have long been feeding off the government school monopoly. At some point soon legislators will need to decide whether they will start acting in the interests of school children and taxpayers, or whether they will go on meekly supporting the well organized public education interest groups that are making out very well from a taxpayer-funded school monopoly, and are almost fanatically opposed to consumer choice and provider competition.

This is John McClaughry, thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.

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