Senate panel drops attempt to overhaul education board

State Board of Education
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe answers a question from State Board of Education member William Mathis during a December meeting. File photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger

The Senate Education Committee approved legislation that will set up a special committee to weigh in on controversial draft rules that affect private schools.

The committee’s six members voted unanimously for the bill, which also makes miscellaneous changes to education laws.

The bill, which does not yet have a number, was mostly stripped of language taking away the State Board of Education’s ability to recommend a secretary of education and restructuring the board.

The legislation sets up a study committee — with two legislators, a member of the state board, the secretary of education, and public school and private school representatives — to make a recommendation about the best way forward on new rules.

Since last summer the state board has been drafting controversial 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.

When lawmakers arrived in Montpelier in January, the private school community was campaigning strongly against the changes; the state board had admitted to errors and mistakes in the rulemaking process; and the previous administration had abandoned the board. Some lawmakers reacted with legislation that would have stripped the board of all rulemaking authority.

Tim Ashe, Philip Baruth
Sens. Tim Ashe, left, and Philip Baruth. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, who chairs the committee, said there wasn’t enough agreement on changes to the state board, and the language was taken out. But Baruth is glad the study committee is going forward.

“The goal all along was to try and reduce the temperature on this issue, and to the extent possible, get an agreed-upon process where everyone could work out acceptable compromise language,” he said.

The special committee is to meet seven times and produce a report by January.

The state board is expected to take this up at its March meeting next week. Baruth said he put forward his legislation in good faith and hopes board members will view the study committee as a “useful addition to their process.”

Another important element in the bill deals with the state’s dual enrollment program for high schoolers who want to take college courses. Committee members learned that some colleges were charging students general fees that were not related to materials used in the class, and they were concerned it may deter low-income students from taking advantage of the program.

This bill would allow for fees directly related to the course, such as a lab fee.

Baruth helped write the original law said that parents and students are not supposed to be charged for the courses. “I see that as protecting access to those courses by low-income Vermonters because if you put a $50 fee on something, some of them won’t want to do it,” he said.

The Senate bill also weighs in on a highly charged debate that began at the end of the last legislative session about where speech language pathologists would be licensed.

The Office of Professional Regulation wanted to continue to license SLPs — who diagnose and treat communication and swallowing disorders — whether they work in a classroom, private practice or hospital.

In the past, all SLPs were licensed at the Agency of Education, regardless of where they worked. Under a change the Legislature made in 2015, SLPs who work in the schools currently have to acquire two licenses — one from the Office of Professional Regulation and one from the Education Agency.

The agency argued that changing the licensure threatens the workers’ status as teachers and could end benefits and protections that other educators enjoy. It also reportedly interfered with the agency’s ability to make sure classroom SLPs are highly qualified teachers, which is a federal requirement.

The Senate Education Committee is keeping licensure at the Agency of Education. Baruth said it made common sense. “We went forward on a rationale that there are hundreds of real people involved who are currently paying double for their licenses and we needed to fix that first and foremost,” he said.

The 20-page bill also:

  • Excludes pre-kindergarten students from enrollment counts when they are used to decide if a school is eligible for a small-schools grant.
  • Requires one member of the Vermont Standards Board to be a superintendent.
  • Establishes that school principals will be notified of the status of their contract renewal earlier.
  • Amends the state’s education laws to line up with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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