State board struggles to bring public, private schools together

Members of the State Board of Education have found some common ground as they consider proposed changes to draft rules for private schools wanting to receive public tuition dollars. But open enrollment and special education continue to be contentious.

Representatives from the private school community sent their suggestions to the board Jan. 3.

Nicole Mace
Nicole Mace is executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. File photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger
A subcommittee of board members also has heard from the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators.

The rules in question guide the process for approving private schools to accept students through Vermont’s town tuitioning system.

The Agency of Education proposed language that the board adopted in July. The changes would require more fiscal accountability, open enrollment, and the offering of all categories of special education.

The changes as written proved controversial. The board has been gathering input from various interested parties in preparation for revising and considering them again.

In their letter, the private schools said they do not want to have to institute open enrollment or get approval to teach all categories of special education. “Mandating open enrollment and special education policies will have a tremendously negative impact on independent schools across Vermont. If schools cannot comply due to cost, or misalignment with mission, they will not be able to accept publicly funded students,” the letter says.

It was signed by Mark Tashjian, headmaster at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester and chair of the Vermont Council of Independent Schools; CJ Spirito, head of Rock Point School in Burlington and chair of the Vermont Independent Schools Association; and Tom Lovett, headmaster at St. Johnsbury Academy.

Tom Lovett
Tom Lovett, headmaster at St. Johnsbury Academy, speaks before members of the State Board of Education in December in St. Johnsbury. File photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger
Board Chair Stephan Morse said it was clear at the last stakeholder meeting that this was the issue where a line was drawn in the sand. “We were nowhere near close,” he said.

When the board asked the agency to draft the rules, it specifically asked for language that would focus on equity. “It is the view of the state board that equal opportunities must be available to all in admissions, program availability and discipline, and that the rules explicitly address these issues,” according to the November 2015 memo.

Chris Leopold, the attorney for the state board, told members Friday that the current draft rules do not capture that intent, but instead use nondiscrimination language found in state and federal law that private schools already have to implement. Groups representing school boards, superintendents and special educators have proposed changes that would go further.

Morse said the board asked Nicole Mace, executive director of the VSBA, and the other public school advocates to propose new language but that the private school representatives were not engaging on the issue.

“It is a tough choice for this committee. There are one of two ways we can go: Do you want to take it on or leave it alone?” Morse asked at Friday’s meeting.

Mace said the current draft rules only reiterate state and federal law and are missing procedural safeguards that would make sure every child has a fair shot.

To deal with enrollment access, the group suggests that private schools announce by February how many publicly funded students they plan to accept for the next school year. If more students apply than that number, then the school could use a lottery system. The rule is based on Vermont’s rule for public high school choice and on national charter school laws.

This same rule would include special education students. “If an accepted student is eligible for special education services, then the (individual education plan) team will meet to make a determination regarding whether the independent school can provide the services required by the student’s IEP,” the group proposes.

On the flip side, she said, the group’s proposal includes more special education flexibility.

The draft rules say private schools need to get approval in all special education categories. There are about a dozen categories; some capture many of the students with special education needs, while other categories serve very few students. Getting approved is expensive and time-consuming, and private schools have argued that they may go through the process and then never have a student with that disability show up.

Mace’s team recommended a different way to handle it. The schools could wait and get approval only after enrolling a student with a disability, and the local education agency would be required to help. (LEAs are responsible for the education of special education students.)

The headmasters’ letter did include the first public statement from the private schools recognizing what the state board has said was its true intention with one of the most contentious draft rules.

“It is our understanding that the board does not intend to require independent schools to comply with all state and federal laws and regulations that apply to public schools, such as teacher licensure. Rather, the goal of the ‘catchall provision’ as we understand it is to ensure independent schools provide a safe and healthy environment for students,” the letter says.

The confusion around the rule caused the state board to issue a memo Nov. 29 to clarify it. Yet private school representatives had continued to portray the rule as they read it.

Leopold, the state board’s lawyer, offered a 17-page draft with all the proposed changes to the subcommittee for consideration. The private schools offered changes to the fiscal accountability section; a change to what schools could be called “approved” instead of “approved” and “recommended”; suggestions on accreditation matters; and tweaks to the federal and state health and safety rule.

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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  • For me a definition of public education is: Provision of high quality educational programs; open to all comers; and free of charge at the door. If Vermont’s private/independent schools want to accept public tax dollars, then Vermont’s private/independent schools need to act as a provider of public education.

    • Adrienne Raymond

      Rama, Yes, that is the most reasonable interpretation. The independent schools clearly do not want some kids in their programs as they are too expensive and are a “misalignment with mission”. The letter from the Independent School folks was meant to sound reasonable, but instead is clearly elistist and discriminatory and not deserving of public monies. Ms Mace’ suggestions are reasonable. I would suggest expanding them to require participation in the public high school choice program, as well. Then you truly would be expanding choice to all of VT’s students. The issue of fairness and equity are not going away….

  • Re: “.. the private schools said they do not want to have to institute open enrollment or get approval to teach all categories of special education. ”

    I posed this point to Mr. Mathis and he agreed that even public schools aren’t required to teach all categories of special education. School Districts are required to provide FAPE, not individual schools.

    Not only would this requirement put typical independent schools out of the business of receiving tuition and SPED monies, specialty schools like Greenwood and Landmark, in Putney, for example, that focus on Special Education programs, wouldn’t be able to conform.

    These rules continue to be profoundly chaotic. Act 46 should never have been passed in this state of confusion and schools considering or already partially involved in mergers are now at significant risk because no one knows the end results.

    If this set of circumstances doesn’t reveal why our public education system is so inefficient, nothing will.

  • Jason Gaddis

    Discrimination is not equality. We are all responsible for educating all students. Separate is not equal. Transparency and accountability are essential. Public tax money is for the public good. When private and special interests pilfer and poach civil society our democracy is lost.

    • ‘We’ are [NOT] all responsible for educating all students but rather for providing access to a ‘Free and Appropriate Education’ (FAPE).

      This does not mean all students deserve or receive the same education, or that they achieve the same results, whether they attend a ‘public’ school or an independent school. Vermont Statute says it best. T16 V.S.A. § 1. Right to equal educational opportunity.

      The statute says ‘equal educational opportunity’, not equal education, not equal public school education, not equal education outcome. After all, not only are no two independent schools alike, no two public schools are alike either. And there is certainly nothing in Vermont Statute prohibiting taxpayer funding equal educational opportunity from independent schools.

      In fact, I argue that to allow wealthy parents the opportunity to attend independent schools and not subsidize the same opportunity for everyone else is unconstitutional.

      • Ethan Rogati

        I attended a private school in upstate New York, K-12. At no point were my parents wealthy, nor did they become exempt from education taxes. I suspect much the same is true in Vermont, for many private school families.

        • Apparently, your parents were wealthy enough to afford both the property taxes (actual or nested in rental payements) that funded public schools AND pay the tuition required by the private school you attended. The majority of parents in Vermont with kids in school today can not afford both expenses, especially given that Vermont’s propertey taxes are in the top ten of the highest State property taxes in the country.

        • rick irick

          Vermont and NY are two different animals. NY public schools have it way over Vermont schools you look at the quality of the student when they get to college.

  • Rob Roper

    So, Rama and Jay, would you be okay with a policy that mandates if a student wants to take a course or participate in an extracurricular activity available at one public school but not another, that the student should be entitled to attend the public school that has that program(s) — no discrimination based on geography, school must take all comers?

    • Rob: When my kids attended public school, we actually arranged for just such a circumstance. It worked well for us. But your example infers other complexities, I suspect, for a reason.

      Of course the term ‘mandate’ wasn’t applicable. When my children wanted to partake in the curriculum of a given school, under school choice, they had the option to choose that school. If the chosen school didn’t provide a specific program, but another did, it’s was up to us, the parents and the two schools, to negotiate the shared arrangement.

      As for requiring any school ‘to take all comers’, the question presents a typical false dilemma. First of all, no specific school, public or private, is required ‘to take all comers’. This is a common misunderstanding and an even more common point made to obfuscate the discussion. It is the School District, not any given school within the district, that is required to provide ‘equal educational opportunity’ to a ‘free and appropriate education’.

  • Matt Young

    I don’t believe the state board is trying to “bring public and private schools together” I believe they are trying to put regulations in place that will squeeze independent schools and cause some to go out of business, forcing children into the public school monopoly. They will put in as much regulation as they can get away with.

  • rick irick

    there is this thing that is called the child with disabilities act which public schools are accepting but don’t always seem to go to the disabled students then there is charging medicare which is a different charge for disabled students. the teachers union is the only one benefiting