When is Choice Not Really a Choice? Thoughts on National School Choice Week

The following has been sent to area newspapers to share some thoughts about National School Choice Week. Parents of UCA students make significant sacrifice for the sake of their children. Perhaps this can begin discussion that brings support to them in an equitable way.  
When Is Choice Not Really a Choice?  

When is school choice not really a choice? This week editorials and letters applaud educational choice in Vermont. However, in a state that celebrates freedom and independence why do we eliminate choice, in its fullest definition, for families desiring an education for their children that is consistent with their values? Anti-religious families insist they have a right to education without religious overtones, yet families wishing education with a foundation of religious values are discriminated against unless they can afford the extra expense of tuition. What reasons allow this limited definition of choice to continue?  

Is it due to a concern our children get the best education? Recently Rob Roper wrote in the Orleans County Record how vital a private school education was for his unique needs. His was not an indictment of educators or public schools, but testimony to the varying learning needs of many. Religious schools as an alternative choice is another way of meeting the unique needs of a large segment of our society who are religious.  

Is it because Christian schools are considered exclusive fortresses? United Christian Academy hosts students from other nations, religions, and a large percentage not involved in a church. UCA’s foundation is Christian, its culture expects behavior consistent with Christian values, yet the school does not mandate a specific religion to attend or graduate. More about this another time.      

UCA is also not exclusively for those with funds to attend. Over 50% receive financial aid. School founders sought to establish an educational alternative allowing for Christian values in support of families seeking an environment of academic excellence, Biblical values, and Christian unity. UCA is committed to find a way to educate all who choose this alternative. The school regularly seeks individual and church contributions to help fund needed financial assistance for families.   Is restricting choice due to a concern over educational quality? Most Christian schools, UCA included, have outstanding graduation results. Students are accepted at the finest secondary institutions in the country. One recent alumna on a return visit shared that she was so prepared that she was considering working on three degrees in her four years. Religion may be the foundation of UCA values, but academic excellence is valued as highly. Hard work, family encouragement, and teachers who lovingly refuse to allow students to fail, have resulted in the last two graduating classes being offered an average of $100,000 per student in scholarship offers, a record to celebrate.  

Is limiting choice due to a false belief that religious values are not compatible with educational excellence? Do we forget that most higher educational institutions, even Ivy League schools, were founded as religious institutions? Christianity has been at the forefront of education in every nation including ours, offering a loving, uplifting, encouraging environment for students to grow and mature in mind and soul. Christians have always viewed education as a way to improve a person’s life and society as a whole.  

Do we believe those wishing education with a religious foundation is inconsistent with our nation’s founders? My understanding of history is that most founders were people of faith, even if having a variety of religious styles. Plymouth Colony and Providence Plantation were founded around issues of religious freedom, seeking a place to exercise religious choice freely.  

First amendment writers intended to ensure all people freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. Yet schools now prevent families the choice to have their children educated in a school that allows religious discussion without bearing the hardship of the extra cost of tuition. They are forced to pay the same taxes as everyone without receiving education that meets their needs. Instead, the choice for educating and instilling values for their children, their exercise of freedom of religion, is made for them; they must attend schools refusing to allow religious discussion or find the funds to attend a religious school.    

Rep. Scott Beck recently wrote that “school choice is good for Vermont.” Yet for nearly a third of our state families there is really no choice in the truest sense. They could choose a school with a religious foundation, but are refused this option unless they find extra funds. A tuition voucher without restrictions is the only way any state can boast of school choice. If Vermont values independence and freedom, does it really mean freedom for all except religious? Let’s end religious restrictions for Vermont and have true school choice. Do it for the benefit of every family’s right to choose an education in line with their family values, and model the intent of our nation’s founders. Our society will be better for it. What we have now is really not school choice.  
Rev. J. Loring Carpenter, Interim Head of School