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The Logical Tragedy Of Benson, Vermont
In 1995, just about one hundred years after the inception of modern institutional schooling in America, the little town of Benson in western Vermont set a national record by voting down its proposed school budget for the twelfth time. Charlie Usher, assistant superintendent in Benson, declared his bewilderment at the towns irresponsibility. Mr. Usher suggested the task was to get "at the root of why people would be willing to let their schools fall apart..." I think Mr. Usher is right, so lets see what we can turn up by using common sense. But first, to show how united in outrage Benson school officials were, Education Week, the bible of the teaching business, quoted Theresa Mulholland, principal at the Benson school (more on this shortly) as saying nobody in town had a good explanation for what they were doing: "I think they just want to say No, " she said, as if those townspeople were ornery kids or retarded children. Benson just didnt get it. Schools need lots of money, or, as Usher suggested, they fall apart.
The Education Week piece in which I read these things covered every single inch of a two-page tabloid spread, yet nowhere could I find a single word indicating the problem might just be that its taxpayers and voters didnt regard the Benson system as their own. Nor is there even a hint Benson may have abandoned its belief that what goes on in school is an essential enterprise worth a substantial part of its income to promote.
So I read this newspaper account of a little town in Vermont and its defiance of the state school institution pretty carefully because I sensed some important message buried there. On the third run-through I discovered what I was looking for. Lets start with Assistant Superintendent Usher. His title implies that hidden somewhere out of sight there is a Superintendent somebody, too. If you dont find that odd its because I havent told you that the entire school district of Benson has exactly one school with 137 kids in it. A brand-new school with a principal, too. Apparently you cant have a principal without an assistant superintendent giving orders to that lowly functionary and a superintendent giving orders to the assistant superintendent. Three high-ranking pedagogues whose collective cost for services is about $250,000nearly $2,000 a kid. Thats nice work if you can get it.
The new Benson school itself is worth a closer look. Its construction caused property taxes to go up 40 percent in one year, quite a shock to local homeowners just hanging on by their fingernails. This school would have been rejected outright by local taxpayers, who had (they thought) a perfectly good school already, but the state condemned the old school for not having wheelchair ramps and other features nobody ever considered an essential part of education before. Costs of reaching code compliance in the old structure were so close to the cost of a new school that taxpayers surrendered. The bond issue was finally voted. Even so, it passed only narrowly. What happened next will be no surprise. Benson School turned out to cost a lot more than voters expected. I am skeptical that it cost more than the State of Vermont expected, though.
I have some personal experience with Vermonts condemnation of sound school structures from the little town of Walden, hardly more than a speck on the map northeast of Benson in the most beautiful hill country you can imagine. A few years ago, four pretty one-room schools dating from the nineteenth century, schools still serving 120 kids with just four teachers and no administrators, were condemned by the same crew from Montpelier that gave Benson its current tax headache. I was asked by a citizen group in Walden to drive up and speak at a rally to save these remarkable community schools, beloved by their clientele. If I tell you when I woke in the morning in Walden a moose was rooting vegetables from the garden of my hostess home youll be able to imagine them better.
The group I came to speak for, "The Road Rats" as it called itself, had already defeated school consolidation the previous year. Montpeliers goal was to close the little schools and bus kids to a new central location miles from home. Now Montpelier took off the gloves. If persuasion and seduction wouldnt work, coercion would. Lets call what happened "The Benson Maneuver," passing building code provisions with no connection to normal reality. This accomplished, Vermont condemned the one-room schools for violation of these provisions. All official estimates to reach new code standards were very close to the price of consolidating the little schools into a big new one.
Road Rat resistance would be unlikely to mobilize a voting majority a second time; the publicists of mass-production economics have successfully altered public taste to believe it doesnt make sense to repair something old when for the same price you can have something new. Our only hope lay in getting a construction bid low enough that voters could see they had been flim-flammed. It seemed worth a try. The Walden group had been unable to find a contractor willing to publicly oppose the will of Montpelier, but by a lucky accident I knew a Vermont master architect. I called his home in Montpelier. Two hours later he was in Walden touring the condemned buildings.
Vital to understanding why the state wanted these places closed so badly was that everything in such places worked against professionalization and standardization: parents were too close to the classroom to allow smooth "professional" governance to sneak by unnoticed. It wasnt possible in such schools to float a scientifically prepared curriculum initiative without having it come under close and critical scrutiny. That was intolerable to Montpelier, or rather to the larger octopus the Montpelier tentacle wiggled for.
After inspection, my architect pronounced the official estimates to reach code compliance cynical and dishonest. They were three times higher than the work would cost allowing for a normal profit. My architect knew the principals in the politically well-connected construction firms which had submitted the inflated bids. He knew the game they were playing, too. "The purpose of this is to kill one-room schools," he said. "All these guys will be paid off one way or another with state work for forwarding the agenda whether they get this state job or not." I asked if he would give us a counter-estimate we might use to wake up voters. "No," he said. "If I did I wouldnt get another building job in Vermont."
Lets get back to Benson, a classic illustration how the political state and its licensed allies feed like parasites on working men and women. Where Education Week saw deep mystery over citizen disaffection, the facts put a different spin on things. In a jurisdiction serving only 137 children, a number which would have been handled in the old and successful Walden schools with four teachersand no supervisors other than the towns traditions and the willing oversight loving parents would provide because the students were, after all, their own kidstaxpayers were being forced to sustain the expense of:
- A nonteaching superintendent
- A nonteaching assistant superintendent
- A nonteaching principal
- A nonteaching assistant principal
- A full time nurse
- A full time guidance counselor
- A full time librarian
- Eleven full time schoolteachers
- An unknown number of accessory personnel
- Space, desks, supplies, technology for all of these
One hundred thirty-seven schoolchildren? Is there a soul who believes Bensons kids are better served in their new school with this mercenary army than Waldens 120 were in four rooms with four teachers? If so, the customary ways we measure educational success dont reflect this superiority. What happened at Bensonthe use of forced schooling to impose career ladders of unnecessary work on a poor communityhas happened all over North America. School is a jobs project for a large class of people it would be difficult to find employment for otherwise in a frightening job market, one in which the majority of all employment in the nation is either temporary or part-time.
Forcible redistribution of the income of others to provide work for pedagogues and for a support staff larger than the actual teaching corps is a pyramid scheme run at the expense of children. The more "make-work" which has to be found for school employees, the worse for kids because their own enterprise is stifled by constant professional tinkering in order to justify this employment. Suppose we eliminated the first seven positions from the list of functionaries paid in Benson: the superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, assistant principal, nurse, guidance counselor, and librarian, plus three of the eleven teachers and all those accessory personnel. Wed have the work those folks do absorbed by the remaining eight teachers and whatever community volunteer assistance we could recruit. This would still allow a class size of only seventeen kids per teacher, a ratio big-city teachers would kill to get, and hardly more than half the load one-room Walden teachers carried. Yet it would save this little community over half a million dollars yearly.
In our hypothetical example, we left Benson with eight teachers, twice the number Walden enjoyed in its two hundred-year experience with one-room schooling. Only a calculating machine could consider a large, consolidated school to which children must commute long distances as a real advance in human affairs. An advance in wasting time certainly. Consider this angle now: who in your judgment has a moral right to decide what size weight can be fastened on the backs of the working citizens of Benson? Whose decision should that be?
From a chart included in the Education Week article, I saw that Vermont school bureaucrats extracted $6,500 in 1995 for each student who sat in their spanking new schools. That computes at $162 a week per kid. Is it fair to ask how private schools provided satisfactory service for a national average of only $3,000 a kid, about $58 a week, the same year? Or how parochial schools did it for $2,300, $44 a week? Or homeschools for a mere $500 or $1,000, or about $10 or $20 a week? Do you believe public school kids were better served for the additional money spent?
Those other places could do it because they didnt support an anthill of political jobs, political purchases, and political routines. These other types of schooling understoodsome through tradition, some through analysis, some through trusting inner voicesthat transferring educational responsibility from children, parents, and communities to certified agents of the state erodes the value base of human life which is forever grounded in local and personal sovereignty.
5Shortly after this twelfth defeat at the hands of local citizens, the state stepped in to override the judgment of the voters. In January 1996, the Vermont State Senate passed a bill to forcibly "lend" the Benson School District the full amount of its twelve-time citizen-rejected budget. Benson voters would now pay the full amount demanded by the school district plus interest!
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