Proposed Mandates Could Force Closing of Independent Schools in Vermont

Published May 16, 2017

Vermont has had a “town tuitioning” program since 1869.

“The school voucher program provides educational options for students whose towns do not have public schools,” EdChoice reports. “The sending town pays school tuition directly to the ‘receiving’ school, which can be any public or private, non-religious school in or outside Vermont.”

In the 2016 legislative session, the state Senate’s Education Committee rejected legislation imposing strict requirements on independent (nonpublic) schools. The state Board of Education is currently considering imposing new requirements on schools that receive tuitioning students, including costly special-needs services.

Susan Vigne, cofounder and president of an independent school in Middlebury, told in February,

“The cost of that is so prohibitive to a small school,” said Vigne.

Rather than close, Vigne’s school “would surrender their state-approved status for accepting tuitioning students from school choice towns,” Watchdog reported.

Forced Closures Intentional?

Robert Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, says Vermont’s Board of Education wants independent schools to shut down.

“The gist of what the state board of education is after is to force independent schools that accept taxpayer-funded ‘tuitioning’ students via Vermont’s 150-year-old school choice system to follow many of the same standards and guidelines of public schools,” Roper said. “These include things like hiring only licensed teachers, full financial disclosure to the public, and, most critically, requirements to accept all students regardless of ability or disability who apply, and by lottery if space is not available, and to be certified in all 13 areas of special education. The cost to comply with this last point would drive many small Vermont independent schools out of business, and this is the point.”

Roper says public school advocates feel threatened by independent schools.

“The reason the public education [establishment] wants these laws is because Vermont has lost about 25,000 K–12 students over the past two decades, which is a loss of roughly 1 percent per year,” Roper said. “The public school folks are trying to drive the independent schools out of business and capture their students.”

Public School Skimming?

Rick Gordon, director of the Compass School in Westminster, says public school advocates are misrepresenting the facts regarding independent schools.  

“The special ed part is aimed at skimming,” Gordon said. “The pro-public-schools people make the claim that public schools serve all kids, so independent schools taking public funds should serve all categories as well. Again, this is a fairly gross mischaracterization that never gets questioned. Public schools outsource many of the most challenging students, often to independent schools that are designed to serve these students.

“The financial disclosure argument is a red herring about fiscal responsibility,” Gordon said. “I know of no financial malfeasance of independent schools. This, taken with the other provisions, could be construed as efforts simply to undermine independent schools.”

Special-Needs Challenges

Although Compass would embrace the special-education provision, composed of 13 categories, as a general principle, in practice, it cannot work for every single student in a small school, Gordon says.

“Two examples of challenges we would struggle with, as do public schools, are a student with multiple handicaps that require a huge number of services, such as a child with developmental delays and physical health needs for a full-time nurse and limited mobility, and a very loud, disruptive child,” Gordon said. “It is unlikely the public schools would provide adequate funding, nor would this be an efficient way to deliver services that might exist more easily elsewhere.

“We are a small school in a small building,” Gordon said. “Public schools typically shunt these kids off in some wing where they don’t disrupt others too much. We simply don’t have the space to move a child away, and our program is designed to include all kids in every aspect of our school. Having to segregate a kid because of a disability would run counter to our efforts to be inclusive.”

Funding Problems

Gordon says his school would not be able to meet the cost of complying with the proposed regulations.

“Compass operates on a per-pupil cost at least $5,000 below surrounding public schools, maybe more than $7,000 less,” Gordon said. “Over 50 percent of our kids are on free or reduced [price] lunch, and 93 percent receive financial aid. We don’t at all have the funds to meet a lot of new demands.”

With a special educator on staff and more than 20 percent of students identified as having special needs, the school suffers because funding does not always follow the child as it should, Gordon says.

“Although the law says special-education funds should follow publicly funded students, in reality there are times public schools work to alter designations or modify plans so a student will not get special-education funding if going to an independent school,” Gordon said. “We have no way of funding these costs if the money doesn’t follow the student.”

‘Less Attractive Options’

Roper says the proposed rules would seriously constrict Vermont’s education landscape.

“The state Board of Education rules would drive independent schools out of business, creating less diversity and fewer choices for parents and students,” Roper said. “They would leave the remaining schools [with] less attractive options, as they would be handcuffed in their ability to define their own culture and pursue a unique educational mission.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.