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.