Stakeholders reach for compromise over independent school requirements

Jo-Anne Unruh, executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, expresses concerns for students with special education needs at independent schools, during testimony before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Jo-Anne Unruh, executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, expresses concerns for students with special education needs at independent schools, during testimony before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Schools, teachers, administrators and other stakeholders rekindled debate Tuesday over standards that Vermont’s independent schools must meet.

The discussion is round two for a controversial proposal to require independent schools to comply with the same standards public schools must meet for special education, teacher licensing, educational assessments, free meals and other conditions.

The Vermont Independent Schools Association and the School Boards Association have met on their own to hash out differences between the two organizations. Representatives from both groups reported some progress to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon when legislators considered S.91.

If the groups come to terms, differences of opinion between the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, the Vermont-National Education Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association likely will remain.

Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-NEA, said he’d be willing to talk about creative solutions to concerns about teacher licensing, for example. “But we have to be in the room to talk about that,” Cook said.

He appeared perturbed and concerned that his union — the state’s largest, representing about 11,500 Vermont educators — had not been involved in pre-session negotiations over the bill. Senate Education Committee Chair Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, assured Cook that he and all other stakeholders would have a seat at the table as discussions continue.

As written, S.91 would only apply to independent schools that accept public money as tuition for one-third or more of their enrolled students, or independent schools organized primarily to serve a general student population.

A school such as the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, for example, would not be subject to the requirements. It was unclear at the committee meeting whether athletic schools such as Burke Mountain Academy, which serves the local population as well as elite skiers, would fall under the new umbrella for compliance.

Stakeholders from all constituencies underscored the value of independent schools. The division among them is whether public funds going to those independent schools should come with strings — and if so, which ones.

Supporters want to tie the money to state laws ensuring equal access to education and consistent educational standards for all students. Opponents want to preserve the independence of independent schools.

The conversation occurs as public school enrollment continues to decline, school budgets continue to grow and independent schools continue to multiply in the state.

Public dollar threshold

There is some disagreement among stakeholders over the proportion of public funding that should trigger new standards for independent schools.

School Boards Association executive director Stephen Dale said a school can be considered “substantially” participating in the public system if at least one-third of its students are publicly funded. Others may lower the bar to 20 percent, Dale said, but he finds one-third to be reasonable.

Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, presents his organization's take on proposed requirements for independent schools to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, presents his organization’s take on proposed requirements for independent schools to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Vermont Independent Schools Association executive director Mill Moore fundamentally disagrees with that premise.

“An independent school is a provider of education, not public education,” Moore stated. “Independent schools do things that public schools either cannot do or choose not to.”

In testimony from the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, executive director Jo-Anne Unruh underscored the role of her constituency and Local Education Agencies. Not only is education access for students with disabilities an important civil rights issue, she argued, but it’s LEA’s responsibility to ensure access — whether a student attends a public school or not.

For that reason, Unruh said, she’s resistant to setting any public dollar threshold before an independent school is required to meet the needs of special education students.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, was more concerned for the time being about a threshold’s potential unintended consequences than where exactly it may be set. He wondered out loud if a school might structure itself to keep below the one-third proportion of publicly funded students, effectively limiting school access in the wake of a policy designed to ensure access.

Special education

Unruh disputed Moore’s assertion that special education students are not discriminated against. She said she’s seen it happen, but Moore contends that he’s yet to see any evidence supporting such a claim.

Unruh also urged attention to students’ special education needs at an earlier age, rather than waiting for statutory 504 accommodations or comprehensive special education evaluations to kick in.

Dale said that requiring special education services for at least four out of 13 categories of need, as S.91 currently proposes, could be better handled for both students and schools. Independents should be required to meet the needs of any admitted student, he said, but should not have to keep staff and equipment on-hand just in case a student with special needs walks through the door.

“This should be student-focused,” Dale said. “We don’t want people spending a lot of money on things that aren’t benefiting students and that are just adding to overall costs — which are as you know of interest in this building,” he said, pointing outside the room to the rest of the Statehouse.

Moore suggested that reducing the administrative burden for approval to attend to special needs would help more schools offer special services. He also said that it used to be standard practice for independents to work with their supervisory unions in much the same way public schools work with supervisory unions now to meet special education needs.

Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, presents his case for adapting proposed requirements for independent schools to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Photo by Hilary Niles / VTDigger

Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, testifies before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. Photo by Hilary Niles / VTDigger

“I’m told that level of cooperation has been substantially diminished,” Moore said, but he wasn’t aware of any legal or administrative barriers to resuming coordination.

Blind admissions

The proposal to require blind admission to independent schools will also be contentious. Dale said it’s a fundamental question of equity from the school board’s perspective, but Moore said it could be a “deal-breaker” for some independent schools.

“I’m sure it’s done with the best intentions to make sure a student matches the capacity of the school,” Dale said. But if an independent school will be a “significant” deliverer of public education, then he believes students should have an equal shot at access regardless of their own abilities or their parents’ “development potential.”

Rather than focus on process, Moore suggested, perhaps a solution can be found in results. He said already about 85 percent of Vermont’s independent schools practice blind admissions. If 10 percent more could be coaxed there on a voluntary basis, for example, that would leave just a handful without the policies.

Isn’t that enough progress, he asked. Because the last vestige could represent an insurmountable hurdle.

Teacher licensing

Dale and Moore appear to have reached a deal on the bill’s proposal to require all the affected independent school teachers to be licensed in accordance with public school standards.

“We are willing to let that issue go,” Dale said.

Aside from requiring special education staff to prove their licenses and endorsements are current, he indicated he would not want to hold up the rest of the negotiations for anything more.

Student assessment

The independent and school board groups also appeared to have come to some agreement over educational assessments, which they said should be struck from the bill.

Publicly funded students at independent schools must participate in assessments already, they said. The protocol is written into a different state statute, and is therefore not necessary in S.91.

Dale said it felt like a “reach” to require testing of all students, and Moore argued that it constituted an undue intrusion upon privately funded students and their families.

Free and reduced price meals

Moore said a requirement to provide free or reduced price meals to low-income students should not be a problem.

He said some of the logistics may need to be ironed out, and his group might ask for state support in the case of a couple small schools that might need to upgrade facilities.

Next steps

S.91 will not be headed to the full chamber for debate anytime soon.

Moore told the committee that his group’s proposed amendments would be at least a week or more in the making. And McCormack says he wants to hear from more stakeholders.

Hilary Niles


  1. Bruce Shields :

    All the providers, those who hope to benefit financially from public funding, are arguing over how to divide the pot. I do not hear one word from the students, and their parents, who may or may not find all these elaborate plans fit their real life situations. Why are public school administrators so afraid of students?

  2. John Perry :

    There is a difference between public and private enterprises. Public enterprises serve a public purpose, and private enterprises serve a private purpose.

    Public money is for public purposes. If you (a private, or “independent,” or “local,” enterprise) want public money, you must serve a public purpose, no matter how noble you think your private purpose is. You don’t get public money just because your customers are also the subjects of a public purpose, unless you serve that public purpose.

    You don’t get the money “without the strings.” You accept the strings, or you don’t get the money.

    That means if you take public money, you do not get to pick and choose which kids you serve, how rich they must be, how high their i.q’s, or how well-behaved and socially adept. If you want to do that, more power to you. But not with my money.

    • The public purpose we should aim for in our Vermont schools is to have every single child find success in school. Who delivers this success is not a public vs private issue. We know no single school can serve every child (or at least not in an economically efficient manner). Independent schools are and can be an essential part of the options available to ensure our children find educational success. Our “public” mission needs to focus on ensuring equal access and funding for children to quality options (and not just the wealthy ones who can afford choices that help them succeed) that would include public schools and independent schools that serve diverse populations. Unfortunately, this misguided legislation aims to hurt exactly those independent schools most committed to serving diverse students representative of their local population base.

  3. Tom Haviland :

    I don’t see how this is controversial at all. You want public money for your private school you have to be accountable to the same standards as public schools

    • Carol Frenier :

      And if you don’t agree with the standards? Should your tax dollars have to be used to send your children to schools whose curriculum you don’t agree with? We have a long history in our country of free choice. As long as schools are certified, why should it matter where parents use the money allocated for their children’s education? Don’t the children and parents come first?

  4. The system of public money following children to independent schools for the public purpose of creating an educated society has produced the finest educational institutions in Vermont — St. J., Burr & Burton, the list goes on. It has worked for a century and a half. So, doesn’t it make sense to make the rest of the system more like the most successful part of the system, rather than vice versa?

  5. Julie Hansen :

    I wonder if maybe Mr. Perry does not live in Vermont. His characterization of independent schools is not remotely similar to Vermont independent schools. It is not new in Vermont to send a capped amount of public funds to independent schools, so it is difficult to understand the recent legislative focus.

    One methodology does not fit for all students, even for special needs students, many of whom have found success in small independent schools. Families and students have the right to find the best delivery of services that will ensure a student’s academic success.

    Schools become independent because they believe in a different approach to education that is tied to their mission. It is not driven by a desire to limit students, but rather to define their mission and their methodology according to their educational beliefs about the best way to educate children.

    And to say “not with my money” is to suggest that parents in independent do not pay taxes. It is their money also.

    • John Perry :

      I have lived in Vermont for 42 years. My children all went to St. J Academy, a wonderful independent school supported by tax dollars, serving the children of the community as well as the children of those who paid tuition. This is as it should be. The independent school which takes tax dollars is responsible to perform the public goods required by law. If it does not do so, it does not get the dollars. Very simple.

      You may spend your own money any way you want. You may only spend my money when it is part of a tax revenue, and my elected representatives expend it. If the rules require that the school provide the service, then it must provide the service, or forego the money.

  6. David Zuckerman :

    Many of the independent schools do a great service for the students that they serve. One of the major questions is whether they truly serve the full diversity of students that many of the public schools serve. It is far easier to produce “better” results when your institution only serves a slice of the diversity. If they all had blind admissions and allowed everyone to attend who wanted to, and then they showed that their results were still premier then we could have the discussion about whether or not they need to meet the same criteria as our public schools. But so long as they do not need to meet the needs of everyone student who wants to go to them, we are not comparing apples to apples.

    • Julie Hansen :

      I don’t think anyone in independent schools has said that they achieve “better” results. I don’t recall that being part of any of this conversation.

      Independent schools, again, want to be independent of a monolithic control of curriculum, methodology, or behavioral policies (aside from anti-harassment and anti-bullying which all have adopted but probably added another level of control).

      It is a difficult conversation because of preconceived ideas of what independent schools do and who they serve.

      Breaking through that barrier is challenging for sure.



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