MANCHESTER – Rep. Oliver Olsen, I-Londonderry, is calling on the State Board of Education to reconsider proposed rules that the lawmaker believes would be “devastating” to independent schools.
The new rules are for private schools that receive taxpayer dollars through tuition arrangements with local communities. The rules include a mandate that the schools take special education students. In addition, teachers at independent schools would be required to hold state certification.
Olsen, in a letter to the State Board of Education, contends the rules as proposed by the board “could bring an end to school choice in several Southern Vermont communities, including Dorset, Manchester, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, Winhall, Sunderland and Danby.”
Olsen is on the board of trustees of Burr and Burton Academy, an independent school in Manchester with 680 school choice students 14 communities.
Olsen has asked the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules to delay implementation so that potential impacts “can be fully assessed.” Progress on school district consolidation under Act 46, for example, could be hampered by the mandates, he said.
The changes are significant enough, Olsen says, to require action by the Legislature, as opposed to the Board of Education. “It is inappropriate for a policy change of this magnitude to be implemented through an administrative rule change,” he said.
Stephan Morse, chair of the board, said he was “a little surprised by the reaction.”
“We think this is just bringing the rules in line with those for public schools,” Morse said.
Morse said the board recognizes the important role independent schools play in Vermont education. “The goal is not to have any effect on school choice in Vermont,” he said.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott said Tuesday that the new rules proposed by the State Board of Education “could undermine, or eliminate, school choice in communities where it has existed for over 100 years.”
Scott says the rules could weaken the educational system and the local economy.
“The State Board of Education should withdraw these rules and rewrite them to support, preserve and expand educational choice in Vermont,” Scott said in a statement. “As governor, I’ll appoint board members who are open-minded about school choice and value the role it can play in growing our economy and retaining and recruiting more working-age families.”
Olsen said the changes, which were offered in July for public comment, “would prohibit local school districts from paying tuition to independent schools, including Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail School, unless they are restructured to operate like public schools.”
If the state board adopts the rules, he says independent schools will become inaccessible to local students.
Burr and Burton Headmaster Mark Tashjian says the rules would “tear at the heart of local control and school choice.”
“The State Board of Education, comprised of unelected officials, must be stopped from circumventing the legislative process,” Tashjian said.
Morse said schools like Burr and Burton and most others “will have no issue complying” with the new rules as proposed, although he acknowledged that requiring that teachers hold Vermont teaching certificates “maybe will become an issue.”
However, the rule-setting process will continue for another six to eight months, Morse said, and there will be four public hearings, including one in Manchester in late November. During that period, the proposed new rules could be revised.
During the July Board of Education meeting, the issue of whether private schools currently accepted all types of special education students — as would be required — was discussed. Thetford Academy, St. Johnsbury Academy, The Mountain School at Winhall, Burr and Burton Academy, and The Village School of North Bennington all accept special education students.
Tashjian says Burr and Burton has an open admissions policy and provides a full range of special education services.
“The biggest problem with these rules is they prohibit towns from paying BBA’s tuition unless we essentially operate as a public school,” Tashjian said. “Our board of trustees, which has helped raise $30 million in the last 10 years, would have to be disbanded. All of our teachers would have to be certified when many of our finest teachers, while very well educated, do not hold certification. All of our administrators, regardless of background and training, would have to be certified. And the list goes on.”
Morse said Tuesday that the new rules would not require any changes in the operational format of private schools, including whether they are overseen by a board of trustees. “But we think they should offer the same services public schools are offering, because public money is paying the tuition.”
Steven Dear, headmaster at Long Trail School in Dorset, said Tuesday that “what they are proposing right now is not acceptable to us,” and he would like to see revisions before any new rules are adopted.
The small independent school, with 195 students in Grades 6 through 12, does not have staff members certified to work with all types of special education students, and not all classroom teachers have a Vermont license.
In addition, the school maintains a strong focus on academics and preparation for college, Dear said, and students looking for a different educational format — or a sport not offered at Long Trail, such as football — are now be advised on other options.
Long Trail receives about 75 to 78 percent of its students from public school districts in the area, Dear said, and it has been growing — up from 145 when he began in the position five years ago. Dear said he has no doubt the entire Manchester region would be negatively affected by the proposed new rules, as the current choice options draw families to the area.
A letter from the Vermont School Boards Association argues that the new rules merely level the playing field between private and public schools as they compete for resources.
Nicole Mace, executive director of the association, wrote in July that “Public dollars that support private schools should carry with them the same obligations regarding quality, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability that apply to public school districts.”
An attorney representing the Vermont Independent Schools Association argues that current state law lists the requirements that private schools must meet, limiting the board’s authority to implement new rules without legislative changes.
Olsen said the changes could have a negative impact on real estate values in the Manchester area. “School choice is a huge draw for these families,” he said. “A number of people have moved here because they are attracted by the school choice.”