What’s the Matter with Vermont? Nullification and the Politics of Public Schooling

Vermonters want out.  Some of them, at any rate.

In the pages of The American Conservative, Kirkpatrick Sale reviews a new volume about a surprisingly long-lived secessionist movement in the Green Mountain State.

What do the new nullifiers want?  According to Sale, the freedom-fighters depicted in Most Likely to Secede have several related goals.

Vermonters want to take back control from the federal government in such areas as food policy, gun control, marijuana laws, and, of most interest here, public education.

Learning, according to volume editor and essayist Ron Miller, can be done better in Vermont.  Learning can be liberated from costly and nonsensical federal mandates and standardized testing.

As quoted by Sale, Miller wants “holistic education . . . an educational culture that respects and encourages learning on a human scale, that supports caring and loving communities of learning.”

Such goals, Miller argues, put right-thinking Vermonters at odds with an “authoritarian educational policy” dictated by Washington DC.  Freedom will come from refusing federal dollars, so that Green Mountain schools can be liberated from the mandates of centralizing bureaucrats.

Does nullification stand a better chance in Vermont than it did in South Carolina?

When it comes to education policy, refusing federal dollars is a tall order for cash-strapped states.  This is especially true when the ultimate goal is as mushy as “holistic education.”  Conservatives of all stripes make a politically powerful argument when they advocate for direct local control of schooling, or when they fight to keep objectionable ideas out of local school curricula.

It is much harder to fight for local control when the goals of that control include a new vision of what education can be.  As historian Arthur Zilversmit demonstrated, anything new in schooling faces a brutal uphill battle.  As Zilversmit concluded, most Americans, presumably even in Vermont, share a “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns” (page 169).

Independent schools, in Vermont or anywhere else, only stand a chance when they have independent funding.  That will not likely soon be the case for public schools in breakaway Vermont.