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Monday, March 13, 2017

214. The Logical Tragedy Of Benson, Vermont: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

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 town's 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 let's 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 didn't 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 didn't 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. Let's start with Assistant 
Superintendent Usher. His title implies that hidden somewhere out of sight there is a 
Superintendent somebody, too. If you don't find that odd it's because I haven't 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 can't 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 $250,000 — nearly $2,000 a kid. That's 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 Vermont's 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 you'll 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. Montpelier's 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 wouldn't work, coercion would. Let's 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 doesn't 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 wasn't 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 wouldn't get another building job in 
Vermont." 

Let's 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 teachers — and no supervisors other than the town's 
traditions and the willing oversight loving parents would provide because the students 
were, after all, their own kids — taxpayers were being forced to sustain the expense of: 

1 . A nonteaching superintendent 

2. A nonteaching assistant superintendent 

3. A nonteaching principal 

4. A nonteaching assistant principal 

5. A full time nurse 

6. A full time guidance counselor 

7. A full time librarian 

8. Eleven full time schoolteachers 

9. An unknown number of accessory personnel 

10. Space, desks, supplies, technology for all of these 

One hundred thirty-seven schoolchildren? Is there a soul who believes Benson's kids are 
better served in their new school with this mercenary army than Walden's 120 were in 
four rooms with four teachers? If so, the customary ways we measure educational success 
don't reflect this superiority. What happened at Benson — the use of forced schooling to 
impose career ladders of unnecessary work on a poor community — has 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. We'd 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 didn't support an anthill of political jobs, 
political purchases, and political routines. These other types of schooling understood — 
some through tradition, some through analysis, some through trusting inner voices — that 
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. 



Shortly 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! 

Natural Selection 

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