Advocates push ‘equity’ for special education students

Jo-Anne Unruh is executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators. File photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
The debate around the private school rules that would require open enrollment — including for students who need special education services — has become so politically charged that the children have been forgotten, according to an advocate for special education.

“My biggest concern is that students with disabilities are taking a back seat to the increasing politicization of the process,” said Jo-Anne Unruh, who heads the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators. She made the comments Thursday to the Senate Education Committee, referring to the State Board of Education’s role in making rules.

The Senate Ed panel is drafting two bills that would take away the board’s ability to recommend a secretary of education; restructure the board, adding an independent school representative to it; and set up a study committee — with two legislators and public school and private school representatives — to start the rules process over.

Unruh, whose group is a stakeholder and member of the committee negotiating with the private schools over the draft rules, testified against the legislative panel’s plans.

Since last summer the state board has been drafting rules that would require private schools seeking to receive public tuition dollars for students with school choice to accept anyone, as long as there is space, and to serve special education students. They also call for more fiscal accountability.

The proposed rules would allow schools to accept public tuition for a special education student even if the school isn’t approved to teach a student with that type of disability, as long as the school gets the approval within a year. (There are 13 categories of special education.) The school district and the special education team, known as an IEP team, would work with the private school to get this done.

The private school community has pushed back — particularly because the open enrollment process would force them to use a lottery system once spots are filled — and agreement has not been quick in coming.

Headmasters and parents have testified before the committee in favor of the changes to the state board and against the draft rules. But so far, the committee has heard little from families of students with disabilities.

Unruh told the panel that parents of children with disabilities whose kids have not been admitted to private schools or who have been asked to leave choose not to testify because they want to protect their children from identification and embarrassment.

“Unless you have heard and sat with parents who have been rejected by these schools, you can’t understand what a blow it is,” she said.

March 2 was Disabilities Awareness Day at the capitol, and a mother and her daughter went to the Senate Education panel and asked to be heard.

Eva Edwards Stoll, an 11th-grader at Burlington High School, has Williams syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that affects the way she looks and makes schoolwork more difficult. Stoll told lawmakers that she has to work harder than most people at school but she gets good grades.

“It is really important for people who are different, who have disabilities, to be in schools of all different kinds,” she said. “If you live in a place where you only have access to private schools and they don’t accept you, it is kind of like saying we are going to deny you the same education as Bob or Sarah because you are disabled.”

Her mother, Miriam Stoll, told lawmakers that she has two other children still in high school and if she lived in a tuition town, it would put her in a difficult situation.

“I would be in a situation where I would have one set of opportunities for three of my kids and another for Eva,” she said. “She has to put herself out there everywhere she goes and work really hard to prove to people she can do things. The idea that, in this age, we live in a place where a school wouldn’t accept her, it really hurts people like Eva and families like mine.”

Mill Moore
Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association. File photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Mill Moore, who heads the Vermont Independent Schools Association, has said both public and private schools have an obligation not to keep a student if his or her needs can’t be met by that school.

Vermont’s public schools send students with disabilities to out-of-district schools all the time because they can’t meet students’ needs, Moore added.

The Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators questions whether public education dollars should continue to flow to general education private schools “where a broad range of students with disabilities are not necessarily considered for admission or are sometimes ‘counseled out’ when the behavior or academic skills of the students don’t mesh with the private school’s mission.”

But as long as private schools don’t have to provide data on admissions, dismissal, discipline, special education status, low-income status or any other category to the Agency of Education, it is hard to know the true scope of the situation. Any information the agency has is voluntarily provided and is not checked for accuracy.

“The absence of comprehensive data from the independent schools regarding special education admissions processes, retention and discipline hobbles the ability of AOE to fairly assess the work of the independent schools with regard to students with disabilities,” Unruh said.

The lack of data also puts school districts in a legal bind because they are responsible for the private schools’ decisions if there is a court case.

Tuition for any special education student placed in a private school will be reimbursed by the local school districts, also known as a local education authority, or LEA, and if a court case is filed, the LEA is sued, not the private school, according to Unruh.

She asked lawmakers to consider having private schools provide data to the Education Agency that it can analyze in the interest of better serving kids.

“This is not a question of black hats and white hats at all. This is a question of building greater understanding and making sure students with disabilities are treated fairly and equitably,” Unruh said.

Karen Richards, Bill Sorrell
Human Rights Commission Executive Director Karen Richards speaks at a news conference. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
In a February letter to the board of education, Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said there are indications that students with disabilities are being treated differently than other students in the admissions process at private schools. Her organization investigates complaints of discrimination in schools, and it supports the “blind admissions” rule change that includes a lottery.

In addition to arguments against open enrollment and student lotteries, the private school community has argued that smaller providers might have to close because it would be onerous and costly to comply. There are also private schools that take in very few publicly tuitioned students; these schools claim the rules would put an unfair burden on them.

Miriam Stoll told lawmakers she didn’t buy arguments that schools will close if they have to accept students like her daughter. “I know there has been pressure here from independent schools, and I realize that we need to have a range of schools and those schools may have to change how they do business a little bit … or they can exist and not accept children like Eva and not accept those (public) funds. That is an option.”

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he is committed to digging into questions of access to special education.

“Under no circumstances are we not solving this problem,” he told the Stolls.

In an interview, Baruth said this is a civil rights issue and it can’t be dealt with “willy nilly” because there could be negative unintended consequences.

There is a tension between public and private schools, he said, adding that many in the private school community believe the public schools have the direct ear of the state board.

Baruth said the study committee proposed in his bill will be seen as more balanced.

“It is my heartfelt belief that this process will get rid of the ill will, the name calling, and focus on creating a possibility for kids to go to any independent school they want to but in a system the independent schools find doable,” he said.

Unruh doesn’t agree with the committee’s approach and said that undermining the role of the state board is wrong. “They provide a check and balance” that is needed in the present political climate, she said.

Miriam Stoll reminded lawmakers not to forget the children. “As you go through this process and explain it to the people in all the factions out there — the public schools, the private schools — what needs to float to the top is the need for equity for kids like Eva,” she said.

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