New rules ‘devastating’ for private schools, lawmaker says

Rep. Oliver Olsen, photo by Josh Larkin.
Rep. Oliver Olsen. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

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.”

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  • Tom Bisson

    Disappointed in Phil Scott’s position on this. He should want to protect the interest of taxpayers and ensure how public money is spent.

    • Mark Keefe

      As a parent, I would prefer to make the choice on where my son can get the best quality education for his specific needs. I, like Phil Scott, believe that choice provides better outcomes for each child. Who knows my child better? My wife and I or the Department of Education? There is no data to support the claim that only “certified teachers” can be good teachers. Fortunately for us, we are part of the Cougar Nation at MMU High School. All discussions about choice should start with “what is best for the child”.

      • Stephen Farrington

        HI Mark, you make a great point. To the contrary, there is actually lots of evidence that teacher certifications and credentials do not correlate to student outcomes.

    • Stephen Farrington

      Providing quality education at affordable prices is in the interest of the taxpayers. Independent schools are legally restricted to receiving only the average “announced” tuition of Vermont union high schools, which is well below the state average tuition. They serve a vital role in the tapestry of options that help control education costs and deliver student-centered outcomes in Vermont. Phil Scott’s position is in the interest of taxpayers.

  • It is important to note that there is no evidence that a licensed teacher or administrator is a better teacher or administrator. The qualities listed by Nicole Mace have no relationship to licensing or certification of teachers.

    • Howard Ires

      Are you suggesting there is no need to license teachers? Don’t the residents of Manchester have a right to have licensed teachers instructing their children, just like the citizens in other Vermont towns? I don’t understand why this is even an issue!

      • Jamie Carter

        A license doesn’t make a person a good teacher, nor does the absence of a license mean they are not qualified to teach. Student success is a much better indicator of a quality teacher then a piece of paper the state hands don’t you think?

        As for Manchester have the right to licensed teachers… sure you can have licensed teachers, pick a school to send your children too that require that piece of paper.

        • Howard Ires

          Not everyone has the financial means to “pick a school” for their kids, many families must send their kids to the nearest school. A license doesn’t make someone a good teacher or a good driver, however we require them to make sure that minimum requirements are met. It’s not unreasonable for a school that accepts public money to meet public standards for licensing teachers

    • rosemarie jackowski

      I have been teaching on and off since 1957….public schools, private schools, large schools, small rural schools – grade schools and large high schools…also community colleges. One thing I learned along the way was that there is no connection between degrees and teaching ability. Many of the best teachers I have met along the way had no degrees at all.

      Back about 30 years ago, the big scandal in Bennington was the ‘ghost classes’ that teachers took to increase their pay and maintain certification. They paid their money and they got the college credits and never had to attend classes. It was surprising that this was a shocking ‘scandal’ here in Vermont, because it was a common well-known and accepted practice all over the country. Everyone knew that that was how the corrupt system of certification worked. Everybody was in on it…. except the public.

  • Phil Cecchini

    It would seem reasonable that schools accepting taxpayer funds to help them run meet the same rules as public schools. The goal is quality education. If quality education requires Teachers to hold a certain license, or for the schools to accept a certain mix of student then all schools receiving taxpayer funds should meet the same requirements. Otherwise, we will have the hardest and most expensive to teach kids left in public schools for taxpayers to shoulder these higher cost students.

    • Jamie Carter

      “The goal is quality education. If quality education requires Teachers to hold a certain license, or for the schools to accept a certain mix of student then all schools receiving taxpayer funds should meet the same requirements. ”

      But what if a quality education does NOT require a teacher to hold a certain license? Should it still be a requirement?

    • Stephen Farrington

      Therein lies the rub, quality education DOES NOT correlate to teachers holding certifications or licensure. It correlates to factors such as mutual respect, personal involvement, the social and emotional safety of the environment, etc.. Union membership and pay scales DO correlate to teacher credentialing, and the pervasiveness of union influence in the education establishment is well known.

    • Matt Young

      Phil, with all due respect, did it ever occur to you that the “hardest and most expensive to teach” don’t always need to be the “hardest and most expensive to teach.” A different setting with different personnel and methods can have incredible results. Please see our attached testimony in a comment below. The public school system was wasting tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars with negative results. Enter a small independent school, whole new kid, happy, successful, flourishing, proud. The public school system should listen and learn, instead they try to eliminate what works. Shameful.

  • It does bear mentioning for the sake of transparency that Olsen is a trustee for Burr and Burton Academy. While that doesn’t negate his opinion it does provide a bit more perspective then simply referring to him in this context as a “lawmaker”.

    • Cate Chant

      That information has been added to the story. Thank you.

    • Matt Young

      It also bears mention that Rama Schneider has done work negotiating on behalf of union teachers, this doesn’t negate his opinion but, well, you know…….

      • Mark,
        Double thumbs up.

      • For the record: my ONLY experience in school district/teacher negotiations is working on behalf of the school district. Really Matt, reality and facts should play a part in one’s world view.

        • Matt Young

          Rama, Unfortunately the folks, “working for the district” are “working for the teachers union”. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. The “reality” is that the public school system is trying to eliminate its competition. Eliminating the competition would harm children and families, period.

      • Matt, sorry for calling you Mark.

  • “The rules include a mandate that the schools take special education students.”

    Admittedly, I haven’t read this rule. I will. But does it mean an independent school can’t accept State Tuition for Regular Education students unless it has Special Education students? Will independent schools have ‘quotas’? What about typical public schools?

    Special Education is funded differently than Regular Education. Technically, accepting a learning disabled student shouldn’t be a financial hindrance to independent schools. If anything, it can be a plus…..for two reasons.

    First, having a disabled student in its enrollment is a form of diversity – an educational opportunity for all students.

    Second, the cost of accommodating a disabled student is paid by the sending school district, in addition to regular tuition fees, AND, if all things are to be equal, those costs will be reimbursed to the school (public or independent) providing the SPED services.

    • I disagree that having a disabled student is an opportunity for all students. My daughter, who is learning impaired, was sent out of her classroom during subject lessons that were too difficult for her. She was not provided any one-on-one tutoring, which she now receives through the public school she attends. Independent schools have no obligation to meet any type of standard with respect to the learning needs of students that don’t fit their program. While this may look like “diversity” from the outside, it’s a huge disservice to all of the students, most importantly those who need individualized attention.

      • Mr. Mclean: I didn’t say the opportunity would be well used, or squandered, as the case may be, by any institution, public or private. There are no guarantees in education performance from any school, independent or public. Only choices.

        Your daughter has an IEP and an IEP team that determines the programs best suited for her. You are an integral part of that IEP team. If you and the IEP team determine that a given independent school has the best program for your daughter, I suspect it’s because that school meets the standards set forth by your daughter’s IEP. If the school doesn’t meet those standards, be it public or independent, presumably, your daughter’s IEP team wouldn’t choose it in the first place.

        The IEP team can’t force any given school, public or private, to provide the specific program you want. But the IEP team has a powerful alternative – to choose a different school, be it public or independent. And the school district must still foot the bill.

    • Your perception of how special education works is not accurate. The LEA decides where student who has been identified as learning disabled will attend — not the parents. and this hold true even in towns that have school choice. It is called unilateral placement if the parents choose the school and funding services or tuition for that student is at the discretion of the district. We have frequently been denied services for our special ed students.

      • Julie: I think we’ve had this conversation before. While it may be difficult for parents to affect the decision making process of an IEP team, it’s certainly not impossible. While the Local Education Agency (LEA) has the initial authority to provide the services specified by an IEP, if that institution fails to meet the prescribed goals, the IEP team has the authority to choose alternatives.

        Indeed, LEA representation on an IEP team significant, but not insurmountable. In fact, the Due Process Hearing and Mediation process is available to parents when “… a school district within the state has either violated a requirement of Part B of IDEA (the part that contains all requirements regarding the delivery of special education services) or the state’s special education law or regulations.”

        I suggest you and all SPED parents with a grievance visit the following Wright’s Law web site.

    • Matt Young

      Making all of the independent schools licensed to accept all of the different categories of disabled students does not mean they will be sent there by LEA. In fact LEA can decide to send none there. The real purpose of these new regulations has nothing to do with discrimination or equity. Very simply, the purpose of these new regulations is to eliminate competition for the public school monopoly.

      • Matt: While agree with your assessment of the public school monopoly, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a Federal program and regulated primarily by Federal law. As I mentioned to Julie, parents have specific authority prescribed by tat Federal law.

        But we digress: my initial point was, and is, that independent schools can’t be forced to provide specific SPED services and neither can public schools. On the other hand, because SPED funding is separate from Regular Education funding (i.e. Tuitioning), independent schools should not be intimated by being asked to accommodate SPED students. There’s a lot of money to be made by doing so. Why do you think public schools (LEAs) fight so hard to keep SPED students in the first place?

  • Lee Stirling

    Such rule changes may negate many of the very reasons most students/families choose to attend those schools in the first place.

    • Adrienne Raymond

      Hi Lee. Would you elaborate, please.

  • Rep. Steve Berry

    I think it is the height of arrogance that the unelected State Board of Education seeks to circumvent the legislative process. Legislators – I being one of them- were given assurances that school choice would be protected when we voted for Act 46. I stand with Rep. Oliver Olsen requesting that the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules delay implementation on a rules change so that potential impacts ” be fully assessed.” Both our ability to provide the highest education in the state and our local economy in Dorset, Manchester, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, Winhall, Sunderland, Sandgate and Danby may suffer irreparable harm if the State Board of Education plan goes forward. We have mothers and fathers who have relocated from across the country to send their children to our local schools. We want these families to stay. We need them in our area.

    • Tom Pelham

      Rep. Berry…how is it that your seat mate, Rep.Browning, had the insight to vote against Act 46 while you voted in favor or Act 46? Was it the leaders of your party who gave you the assurance that school choice would be protected? Did you discuss this with Rep. Browning before casting your vote as she was very clear about her concerns about the impact of Act 46 on school choice.

      • Jay Denault

        Rep. Berry where were you when you voted for Act 46 while sections 6,7,13,16,18,19,25,26 and 39 impose threats, coercion, intimidation, and bribes to get voters to approve a merger plan, which violates Federal law. Where were you when act 46 requires a school board, (a “public body”) to surrender it’s Statutory Authority to a 16 VSA 706(b) study committee which was amended pursuant to 1 VSA 310(3) to become a “Public Body” in 2008. Were were you when this requirement causes a school board to commit an illegal act by violating Title 24 and current Municipal Law, “Delegation of Authority” Where will you be as a Legislator when you and your colleagues finally realize that all those merger plans, and articles of agreement whether voted on or yet to be voted will not stand up in court! Where will you and your colleagues be when any one person or group of people who are harmed or placed in a worse position as a result of the implementation of Act 46 acquire standing, and file court action!

    • It is the height of arrogance to say that local communities should be able to determine that they want to support schools that are free to discriminate.

    • Stephen Farrington

      Section 4 of the Act 46 makes legislative intent clear in pretty unmistakable language. The State BoE has taken it upon themselves to negate that clear language based on their interpretation of constitutionality, which is only the courts’ authority to determine – not the state BoE.

  • Tom Pelham

    “In addition, teachers at independent schools would be required to hold state certification.”

    A clear case of “regulatory capture”, where the education lobby is given control of the State Board of Education and uses that clout to squeeze out competition.

    The back story is clear. Despite the interests of students and parents, the majority party rewards the education lobby with “agency fees”, Act 46, and control of the state education regulatory machinery and in return the education lobby rewards the majority party with campaign contributions and campaign workers.

    Let’s not be naive about all this….that’s how tarnished it’s become under the golden dome.

  • The proposed rules also affect the independent schools that were established to serve the children that the public schools have difficulty educating. For example, those students with specialized needs, like autism, emotional/behavioral disorders,health issues and hearing loss. Why would the State of Vermont want to make an independent school specializing in one disability set up programs for a child with a different disability? That would add costs (both time and money) to programs to be current with promising practices and staff capacity (qualified staff). And these students are placed by the local schools through IEP decisions. So far, the proposed rules apply to these schools as well. Is that really the intent? To limit the LEA’s choice for placement options and increase out of state placements.

    I think the proposed rules make a mess of several Vermont traditions for a questionable purpose. What playing fields specifically are we trying to level?

  • Elizabeth Golden-Pidgeon

    Private schools should have to meet the same requirements as public schools if they want public money. That includes teaching children with disabilities. Otherwise, they become elitist institutions, which segregate the most advantaged students (and families) from the disadvantaged.

    • Neil Johnson

      When we don’t help the smartest in our schools how is that fair? Perhaps if we also looked on the other side of the spectrum we’d have a better country.

      We are seriously misappropriating money that’s not giving the student a good education and all students are suffering because of it.

      It would be like trying to make me a brain surgeon, you could spend millions on my education, and I might be able to perform operations…..but I’m not sure it would be a good investment, nor that you’d want me to operate on you.

  • Neil Johnson

    Why should we be surprised, monopolies always protect their interests.

    People spending their own hard earned money know what’s best. Too bad the state doesn’t recognize this.

  • JP Cook

    Once again, mediocrity seems to be the goal of the State Board of Education and to discriminate against children who may want a different education. Local districts pay unprecedented amounts to serve the “special education,” needs which the state mandates must be covered, but pays only a percentage in reimbursement. The state’s dollars are our taxpayers as well. At local district, property owners who pay into the state educational tax, are told to keep paying, paying, paying. It is lopsided spending when a single child may have a special “para-educator” for him or her alone. That is not public education. that is private education paid at public expense. Where is the fairness for the average child or even, the gifted child? Where is the fairness for the specially talented child? State mandates are passed and not funded with the caveat property taxes and the state educational fund will simply grow and grow and grow. Look at the State Board of Education’s comedy of errors history.

  • Jamie Carter

    “In addition, teachers at independent schools would be required to hold state certification.”

    Why? Hypothetically I could staff an independent school with nothing but PhD’s that were lured away from local Universities and Colleges and not be able to meet this criteria. But, I bet I could provide a better education to students..

    The SBoE, led by Mr. Mathis, has really gone out of their way to overly complicate things in trying to make it harder for schools to operate than necessary. It’s an underhanded push to eliminate all competition to the Public School System.

    It’s a shame that we have these blanket “rules” coming out that are so shallow in thought and logic being proposed by those who are in control of educating our children. It appears they are in over their heads.

  • Rep. Steve Berry

    Clearly, Act 46 has nothing to do with this Rules change but that was not my point. The rule is ill-advised for those who have school choice and want to keep it.

    • Phill Scott stated his position on this. Where does Susan Minter stand on the issue? As a Manchester Resident this will be a priority in voting.

  • Stephen Farrington

    “Leveling the playing field” is a nonsensical concept. Independent and public schools differ in so many more ways than teacher certification or offering all categories of special education (which most public schools do not do, anyway). Independent schools pay their own teacher retirement plans, whereas public schools teacher pensions are funded out of the state’s general fund. Independent school raise their own capital and borrow at commercial rates when they have to build, expand, or replace infrastructure; public schools indebt the taxpayers. The list of lumps in “the playing field” goes on and on. The idea of “leveling the playing field” by encumbering independent schools in the same way as public schools in the few areas in which independents enjoy a little more freedom is nonsense. Unless we plan to also encumber the public schools in all the places independent schools already have it harder. And then no schools will perform. BOE should focus on unfettering the public schools.

  • Rob Roper

    This story seems to miss the main point of Rep. Olsen’s letter, which was not just that the proposed rules would negatively impact independent schools, but rather that the State Board of Education is violating the law in its attempt to implement these rules, is exceeding its authority in doing so, is disregarding legislative intent, and had not done the due diligence of assessing the economic impact these rules would have — as is required by statute. Olsen lays out the case for each of these charges in minute detail. It’s a pretty big deal, yet this story touches on none of it. Odd choices by the author.

  • Matt Young

    This is our testimony about the utter and total transformation of our son since we were forced out of the local public school and found an amazing little independent school. Please take a few minutes and watch this….
    The school that failed us was full of certified staff, the little independent school that saved him is not. We can never thank enough, Julie Hansen and everyone at the Thaddeus Stevens School

    • Matt: You seem to be reinforcing my previous point….that independent schools are perfectly capable of, if not better suited to, providing ” a free and appropriate public education” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

      Is your son still identified with a learning disability. Does your son still have an IEP and an IEP team? If so, I think you and the Thaddeus Stevens School are entitled to have your sending school district cover the related costs, if they are not already doing so.

      • Matt Young

        Jay, thank you for your reply and several intelligent posts here. Please refer to our attached testimony above. Lyndon town school has refused to cover any of our tuition costs, they claim we “unilaterally placed” our son in an independent school. (Despite the fact all others on the “team” wanted to explore a small independent school) The unilateral placement designation accelerates the statute of limitations for a hearing from 2 years to 90 days. (A slick addition via the teachers union) So yes, we should be entitled to tuition but we do our best to pay it (in addition to lots of property taxes!) Long story short, our son is doing great despite the Vermont public school system and its handlers. The Vt department of education should be ashamed of themselves,

      • As as been published repeatedly, your view of our special education works in Vermont is not accurate. Parents do not have choice about where to send their schools if they have a child who has been identified as learning disable, even if they live in a sending town. This is what independent school leaders and parents keep trying to explain. It is not the decision of the independent school; it is the decision of LEA.

  • Phyllis North

    This definitely seems like something that should be decided by the Legislature and not the state Board of Education. It is a big change in the way things have been run for 100 years, and will end the option to send students to out of state schools (those teachers will never bother to get Vermont certification). I have not heard many complaints from residents of school choice towns, so what is the problem? This seems like a case of “Father Knows Best,” or more accurately, “Shumlin’s Appointees Know Best.”

    • The problem is, of course, that our legislators and other elected officials appoint the State Board, and neither group can accommodate what is in the best interest of Vermont’s children better than their parents can. School Choice will greatly decrease, if not eliminate, the dysfunctional politicking inherent with a State School monopoly.

  • Chuck Taylor

    Shouldn’t special education students be allowed to choose Burr and Burton and receive the same level of services they might get at Rutland? Special Ed, Ell, etc. are expensive and difficult to do well. Or should B and B be allowed to operate as they are; a publicly funded prep school that recruits top athletes away from local schools in order to build their trophy room ? When the best athletes and students “choose” B and B, for instance, local schools become less desirable for all. Let’s see them spend millions on special Ed an Ell; then we’ll have a fair choosing ground.

    As for teachers not needing licenses: why bother with licenses for any profession? Who needs training and education in their chosen profession? Hell, I know a lot of folks who can wire your home or make great arguments in the court of law. I know 14 year olds who drive better than my husband……to hell with licenses!

    • Matt Young

      Chuck, independent schools do offer “special ed” but not all schools specialize in everything. Furthermore, many families with children hastily categorized “special ed” by the public school monopoly later discover that they didn’t need “special ed” at all. Sometimes the one size fits all factory public school system doesn’t work out for everyone. A different setting with different personnel and methods can achieve amazing results. The public school that failed to serve my son was full of licensed teachers, the amazing, life changing independent school where he now succeeds is not.