Kingdom turns out in force to speak up for private education

Tom Lovett
Tom Lovett, headmaster at St. Johnsbury Academy, speaks before members of the State Board of Education on Tuesday in St. Johnsbury. Photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger
ST. JOHNSBURY — The State Board of Education this week heard northern Vermonters’ concerns that a proposed set of state rules threatens their long tradition of using public dollars to send students to private high schools.

The meeting at St. Johnsbury Academy, one of the four traditional independent academies in Vermont, was billed as a stakeholders meeting to gather language changes for the draft rules. The Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules earlier called for more stakeholder input before the rules move to the public comment phase.

But it was clear when 80 people — including headmasters, parents, advocates and politicians — signed up to speak that they saw this as a public comment session. The planned 90-minute session ended up lasting three hours.

Private schools that want to receive public tuition dollars have to be approved by the state board and renew that approval every five years; the rules in question guide the process. The most controversial rule changes would require private schools to accept any student, provide full special education, get accredited by one of two entities, and provide financial documentation.

According to the Vermont Agency of Education, almost 70 percent of the state’s tuition students go to five private schools that already do serve students in all 12 special education categories, including St. Johnsbury Academy. The four others are Thetford Academy, The Mountain School at Winhall, Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, and The Village School of North Bennington.

The rules as proposed would have less effect on these schools because they already meet most of the qualifications for approval.

But many in the Northeast Kingdom see the proposed rules as threatening their history of sending students to private schools.

“The people in this corner of Vermont, the poorest, most rural and sparsely populated, have chosen school choice and independent schools as the best way to provide our children with a world-class education,” said Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, who also works for St. Johnsbury Academy. “Do the people of this area a favor and end this crusade against school choice and independent schools.”

State Board of Education Chair Stephan Morse tried to explain that the proposed rules would not affect school choice. He said that only the voters can decide whether they run a school or pay tuition for their students.

But for the very small private schools — some with only 10 students — that accept tuition students, as well as those that are very dependent upon state tuition, the fear is that the rules could mean going out of business and limiting choice.

Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, said families wanted to tell the state board how happy they are with their schools and that they believe they are best for their students. Moore said next week’s meeting in Manchester will give southwestern Vermont families a chance to tell their stories too.

“We have been hoping for opportunities to present these stories,” Moore said.

Many of those who spoke were against the proposed changes to the independent school approval process, but some supported them.

The controversial changes have to do with requiring private schools that accept public dollars to share their financial information with the state, to enroll any student who wants to attend and to “be willing” to teach any student with a disability.

Morse said in a Nov. 29 letter that the rules would not require private schools to hire licensed teachers or comply with all state and federal laws that apply to public schools — just those dealing with health and safety. Private schools have raised those concerns. Morse reiterated this clarification when he opened Tuesday night’s meeting.

“These rules come down to three basic areas,” he said. “The new rule talks about fiscal accountability that independent schools would need to abide by to get approval; secondly, open enrollment; and thirdly, there is a new set of rules on what levels of special education would need to be provided by independent schools. Only in that section on special education do we talk about independent schools having to employ licensed instructors (for special education). Independent schools would be allowed to continue to have other unlicensed teachers,” Morse said.

Earlier in the day, the heads of St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester and Rock Point School in Burlington and several members of the state board met to hash out differences over the draft rules with their lawyers present.

Morse said it was a good meeting with a lot of healthy discussion. Both the board and the independent school representatives were able to clear up misunderstandings and get a better idea of where each stood, according to Morse.

“For all of the noise going on about the rules, I never saw the differences as being that large,” said William Mathis, a state board member who was at the meeting. He said a few independent school advocates were telling people that school choice would be destroyed by the rules and that is not the case.

Both Mathis and Morse said progress was made and working groups with representatives from the state board and the independent schools were set up to find common ground and draft language. They will meet again Monday at Burr and Burton Academy before the next stakeholder meeting.

At the Tuesday evening event, Tom Lovett, headmaster of St. Johnsbury Academy said he appreciated the state board’s “ongoing conversations and deliberations that will end up clarifying some rules and revising others.”

Morse called the discussions helpful. “I thought it was very productive, and hopefully we may not completely agree in the end but we will have a better understanding of each other’s position and hopefully some language people will accept,” he said.

The state board might vote on new draft rules as early as Dec. 20 but perhaps not until January, according to Morse. From there the rules will go back to the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules for approval to begin the public comment phase of rulemaking.

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  • Either the reporting on this story is of insufficient detail or the absurdity of some of the reported rules changes can’t be exaggerated. Just imagine a State Board of Ed. rule “…that would require private schools to accept any student.”

    Think about it. Suppose 3,000 students want to attend Burr & Burton, or Thaddeus Stevens or St. Johnsbury Academy. So, the State Board says those schools must accept them…all of them? Even the public school monopoly can’t meet that requirement.

    Surely, we’ll hear the inevitable equivocations by the State Board and the AOE. And that’s the problem. One-size-fits-all school governance doesn’t work because centralized planning is simply too complicated to efficiently accommodate all public and private schools, let alone the needs of individual student best interests.

    • Mark Tucker

      The proposed rule about accepting all students will not force a school to accept students beyond it’s capacity. It’s aim is to ensure that independent schools do not discriminate against students with disabilities and special needs in their selection process. It is about equity, not capacity, and any effort to paint this in another light is obfuscation, not illumination.

      • Who’s obfuscating here, Mr. Tucker? As the director of Special Services in the Washington Northeast Supervisory Union, you, of all people, should know that the public schools in your district aren’t forced to accept all special needs students either.

        According to the IDEA law, the Individual Education Plan Team is authorized to make the placement, not the State Board of Ed., not the AOE, and not you. It is the School District, not a given school within a school district, that is required provide disabled students ‘…the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education, just like other children.’

        This doesn’t mean any specific school, public or independent, is required to accept a disabled student a given school is not equipped to serve.

        • Tulio Browning

          Thank you Jay, for pointing out that Independent schools that take a tuitioned student need to be equal players within that district when it comes to allocating limited resources. That does not seem to be the case currently, with one set of standards for administrative cooperation with public schools and another for Independent schools. I do not work within the system and invite Mark Tucker to offer his professional response to Jay’s comments and to my suggestion that there may exist an institutional bias against using district resources to aid independent schools in supporting students with disabilities.

          • Mark Tucker

            Tulio, There is no institutional bias against independent schools. The law does not allow me to send special needs students to schools that are not approved to serve the student, but this is not a State Board rule, it’s federal law. I used to work in another district that had HS choice and our 8th graders went to the St J Academy, LI, or Danville (mostly), all of which are approved schools for special education. I would point out that the independent schools who take special needs students charge a premium above their basic tuition rate for doing this, and the therapeutic schools that we use are even more expensive. This seems fair to me.

        • Mark Tucker

          Jay, I don’t understand the scolding tone here. Let me correct your understanding of the law. If a district operates a school the IEP team typically places the student at the district’s unless an extreme circumstances indicates that this is not the best placement for the student. In that case, the IEP Team may determine that another placement is warranted, and then the LEA (me, in Washington Northeast) determines where that placement will be. In general practice, districts that operate a school accept and educate all students with special needs regardless of disability type. Extreme examples where this is not appropriate are most often cases of severe emotional disability where a therapeutic placement is more appropriate. This usually only happens after the school has tried and failed to adequately meet the needs of the student.

          The key point here, Jay, is that public school DOES NOT just get to say that they will not accept a student who lives in their district.

          • Matt Young

            Mark, the term ” therapeutic environment” is one I’m quite familiar with. The local public education monopoly loved this term and used it quite often throughout our terrible years with them. We asked repeatedly to consider a small independent school for one of our children, our entire “team” other than the district wanted to explore a small independent school. The district gave us a few choices (with union teachers, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence) the schools were far away, some out of state, all with children with extreme behaviors. The choices given to us were several times the tuition of the wonderful school we were considering. The district refuses to pay any tuition as they love to say, it’s not a “therapeutic environment.” Our son is doing wonderfully despite the damage from attending Lyndon town school. We pay lots of taxes and we pay tuition besides. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. Shame on those trying to put the squeeze on independent schools.

        • Mark Tucker

          Jay, one other point – maybe you misunderstood my original comment about “capacity”. Don’t confuse “capacity” with “ability” – my point about not forcing a school to exceed capacity was in response to your example of impact of 3000 students wanting to attend Thaddeus Stevens school.

          • Re: “In that case, the IEP Team may determine that another placement is warranted, and then the LEA (me, in Washington Northeast) determines where that placement will be.”

            Not true. You and the LEA have a place at the table as representatives on the IEP team. But yours is not the only authorized input . Parents who are dissatisfied with the performance of the IEP, by virtue of its failure to meet its prescribed goals, can apply for a due process hearing and, if LEA members on the IEP team continue to disregard the program performance, can take the issue to court.

            If/when the courts determine that the LEA has not met its requirements, the court has the authority to allow placement to an alternate program, be it in a public school or an independent program and the cost of the program is paid by the sending school district.

          • Mark Tucker

            Jay, the scenario I laid out is factually correct. The IEP Team includes the parents, and it is the Team that determines whether the current placement is providing a “free and approriate public education in the Least Restrictive Environment.” Once a Team determines that the current placement is not the correct one, the LEA rep (my role as Director) determines another placement. I never claimed that mine was the only authorized input.

            Parents have due process rights if they disagree with placement decisions.

          • Re: “Extreme examples where this is not appropriate are most often cases of severe emotional disability where a therapeutic placement is more appropriate. This usually only happens after the school has tried and failed to adequately meet the needs of the student.”

            Vermont abounds with independent school placements paid for by the sending school district for disabilities of all kinds. The Greenwood School, in Putney for example, specializes in programs for students with dyslexia, attention difficulties (ADD / ADHD), or executive functioning deficits – not just so-called ‘severe emotional disabilities’.

          • Mark Tucker

            I gave one example to address the point. Your’s is another.

          • Re: “Don’t confuse ‘capacity’ with ‘ability’.”

            I didn’t confuse the terms Mr. Tucker, the State Board of Ed. did. At least that’s the way it was reported by VT Digger – the contention I raised at the get-go. The article stated – “The most controversial rule changes would require private schools to accept any student,….”. And as I also stated, “Surely, we’ll hear the inevitable equivocations…”

          • Mark Tucker

            Jay, you are misreading the position of the State Board. The accpetance of any student refers to the aim of disallowing discrimination againt students because of a disability. You are entitled to your opinions about what this all means but you are not entitled to your own set of facts. This matter is, at its heart, unequivocally one of equity.

          • The point, Mark, is that what the State Board says is never what it means to say…thus the need for the inevitable and constant equivocation. I’ll refer again to Dr. Altemus’ sophistry in which the apparent meaning of the word ‘sustainable’ education costs refers to taxpayer’s ability to pay ever higher education taxes, not the promotion of lower property taxes most Vermonters assumed was the purpose of Act 46.

            Never mind that all independent schools that serve ‘the public’ are already prohibited from ‘discriminating’ against anyone. That doesn’t mean they must provide programs that accommodate all students. Again, public schools aren’t saddled with that requirement either.

            This business about the ‘rules changes’ by the State Board and other public school monopoly administrators, including you apparently, is a subterfuge for protecting the public school monopoly and limiting School Choice.

          • Re: ” The key point here, Jay, is that public school DOES NOT just get to say that they will not accept a student who lives in their district.”

            Oh yes they do. In fact, all schools, public and independent, can choose not to accept a student, especially if that school is not equipped to provide the services required by the IEP.

            This does not eliminate the responsibility of the School District to provide education services to a disabled student. If there are no local institutions capable of providing the required services, the IEP team must find one that can, or create one at School District expense. In some anecdotal circumstances of which I’m aware, IEP teams have designated programs across the State, or in other States. And the sending School District paid the bill.

          • To readers still interested, the argumentative tack presented by Mr. Tucker is the strategy exercised by most Local Education Agencies (LEA’s). And LEA is just a formal term given to the public school monopoly.

            LEA’s stonewall parents on IEP teams in this way because the IDEA law is complicated and it requires careful navigation for those who want to take advantage of its provisions. Afterall, submitting a ‘due process’ request is time consuming, and going to court is expensive. The LEAs have deep pockets in this regard and can outlast the majority of parents who are frustrated by the process.

            Why do LEAs conduct business this way? To the LEA, SPED is a business and SPED services are big business. Not only are LEAs paid handsomely for providing those services, for every SPED dollar they spend, they are reimbursed by the State to the tune of 55% or more. It’s no wonder Mr. Tucker and his colleagues will say just about anything to justify their programs.

          • Thank you, Mr. Eshelman, with the above comment you have spoken for many families who end up at my school with broken hearts and who go into debt in pursuit of a different educational experience for their children.

          • Mark Tucker

            Jay, this is perhaps the strangest thing I have yet heard. The suggestion that I am part of a “business” that somehow profits by investing a dollar to get fifty-five cents back is ludicrous. I don’t make decisions about eligibility and services based on whether we get a fifty-five cent return on our dollar, and I don’t know another Director that does. That reimbursement, which is sometime higher in cases of very high cost, is meant to offset some of the local cost for educating special needs students because their costs are higher. It’s helpful to the local community where the child resides. Except for the fact that I get paid to adminster the programs, I get no direct benefit. Shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

          • “….except for the fact [you] get paid to administer the programs”.

            And handsomely paid with no performance requirements! That’s the point, isn’t it Mr. Tucker? If compensation isn’t important to you, why is all the fuss always about salary negotiations with School Boards?

            You know as well as I do, if independent schools are allowed to compete with you, you might not be so fortunate.

            Shame on you for hiding behind the public school monopoly and limiting the choices Vermont parent’s and their children have to receive an affordable education that’s best suited (by their evaluation, not yours) to their individual needs.

          • Mark Tucker

            I am an administrator. I am not in the union.

          • Matt Young

            Mr. Tucker, obviously you and many others like you who are employed by the big public education monopoly are anxious to eliminate independent schools (competition) I can tell you from experience that your union dictated one size fits all program doesnt work for everyone. The public education “team” you refer to is a team only in name.
            Mathis referring to legitimate concerns by Vermont families as “noise” is disgusting but not surprising. The true intentions of the union puppet vt education board could not be more clear. The appointed state board of education needs an overhaul. Bigger ears and smaller egos would be a great starting point.

          • Mark Tucker

            Matt, I am not opposed to independent schools, not in the least bit. My interest in all of this, which started with a discussion of the State Board review of rules, is narrowly focused on the role that they play vis a vis providing equitable access to special education students. Everything else you are assuming about me is either imagined to fit some preconceived notion of those of us who work in public education, or inferred from someone else’s comments about me that are not accurate.

            It is disappointing that I cannot discuss factual information without personal attacks on me from complete strangers. So much for educated debate.

    • Jerod Adams

      The only problem we have in this State IS the State Board of Education. They are the only people that are driving up our costs by mandating anything and everything that makes them more powerful. The tax payers have no say when those people force our taxes to go up. That have mandated preschool this year. That takes employing more people and taking up school space. Glorified daycare at taxpayers expense.