Vermont House lawmakers advanced legislation to tighten regulations on private schools that educate students paid for with public money, including a provision that would limit those schools’ ability to turn away publicly-funded students.
The House voted Wednesday afternoon to give preliminary approval to H.483, a bill that would strengthen anti-discrimination measures, place a moratorium on new independent school approvals, and make it nearly impossible for independent schools to reject publicly tuitioned students.
The legislation was written to underscore Vermont’s “core values, such as inclusion and freedom from bias and discrimination in admissions, educating our students close to family and home, and responsible and transparent use of taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, the chair of the House Education Committee, who reported the bill Wednesday.
Under the proposed legislation, independent schools — aka private schools — would need to affirm that they would comply with state anti-discrimination rules and would be subject to more oversight from public school officials.
The bill, which is up for final approval in the House Thursday, also would limit tuition payments to within 25 miles of Vermont’s border and would place a moratorium on new independent school approvals after August 1. Most of the other provisions would take effect in July.
But the bill’s thorniest provision is one that would effectively bar private schools from turning away students whose tuition was paid with public money.
Mill Moore, the executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, said Wednesday that his organization had largely been shut out of testifying about the legislation. Moore said he had reached out to the committee “over and over” asking to testify, to no avail.
“We have been excluded all the way down the line,” he said.
The organization opposes key aspects of the bill, including the moratorium on new school approvals and the open enrollment mandate. Moore used the example of a casual skier seeking public tuition to attend a ski academy.
“If there was an open admissions requirement,” he said, “the school would not be able to say to that student, ‘Sorry, you would be a fish out of water in this environment, where everybody has a passion for winter sports competition, where everybody works out daily, and everybody is out there on the mountain training daily.’”
The bill passed out of the committee March 17, with language that would ban “an admissions process for publicly tuitioned students that includes interviews, entrance exams, academic history, required campus visits, or consideration of ability to pay for any costs or fees.”
But last week, the committee approved an amendment — one that would allow schools to weigh whether prospective students were in “good standing” at their previous school.
That language, which was based on a model policy from the Vermont School Boards Association, would have allowed an admissions office to consider a student’s academic record and attendance record, as well as whether they had been suspended 10 or more times in the past year.
A day after the committee approved that amendment, however, Vermont’s Office of Racial Equity sent a letter opposing it.
Allowing schools to consider students’ academic, disciplinary and attendance records “would have foreseeable disparate outcomes on students of color, students with disabilities, and especially students of color with disabilities,” the office wrote.
On Tuesday, the committee approved a final amendment, one without the “good standing” language, which the full chamber approved Wednesday.
The revisions have also drawn attention to the School Boards Association’s model policy. In an interview Wednesday, Sue Ceglowski, the executive director of the School Boards Association, said the organization planned to revise the document after the Office of Racial Equity’s letter.
“We have removed the model policy from our website and it is under review,” Ceglowski said, noting that the organization’s guidelines had always had language barring discrimination.
“We're very committed to acknowledging and disrupting any inequitable practices, acknowledging biases and creating inclusive multicultural school environments,” she said.
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