The State Board of Education will revise rules for state approval of private schools in the coming year. The decision, made at a meeting earlier this month, caught the Vermont Independent Schools Association off guard.
The recommendation for review was brought by William Mathis, a board member, who raised concerns about admissions discrimination, financial accountability for public dollars and special education offerings. Mathis describes the rule change as a "routine" matter.
But Mill Moore, the executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, was alarmed by the board's decision at a time when the state is pushing for school district mergers that could have an impact on private schools.
"We've been doing this for 150 years and there is no evidence there is a problem," Moore said. "[Mathis] hasn't stated what problem is that he is solving. He made serious allegations about discrimination but he has no evidence, there have been no problems with schools becoming financially insolvent he wants more special education, but there is no demonstrated need to expand special ed capacity in Vermont. We need to know what problems are that he is trying to solve before serious discussion about whether or not his proposed solutions are worthwhile."
Public schools should be held to a higher standard, Moore says, because attendance is compulsory.
Section 2200 series of the State Board of Education Rules and Practices which govern private school approval have not been reviewed or revised in 14 years. Mathis said it is a priority of the board to periodically review and update rules.
Mathis said the biggest problem facing Vermont is the achievement gap between well-to-do students and those struggling with poverty. Identifying the magnitude of the gap is a priority of the SBE, he said.
"What is behind it?" Mathis asked. "Is there a difference between public and private schools? I don't know but we should look into it."
Any independent school that accepts public money for tuition must be approved by the SBE.
Mathis would like to see consistent financial information for any independent school that accepts public money. "We need transparency and public accountability," Mathis said. "There is a great variety of ways to comply with the current law."
Moore has a problem with financial transparency requirements because he says, "Independent schools are independent and we don't want to be made like public schools. We operate with different standards, procedures and assumptions."
The SBE has been uncomfortable with the rules process since the Village School of North Bennington filed an application with the board for approval, according to Moore. Because it had been a public school, it included a public school budget, which seemed to make sense as it was proposing to operate much the same way as it had been.
There are 134 independent schools in Vermont that range from general education schools such as the Sharon Academy to mission driven schools to those that are completely dedicated to special education.
The current approval process
Most of the bigger schools are accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which makes for a swift approval process from the state, according to Moore. NEASC, a voluntary nonprofit membership organization, is known to have rigorous standards.
The Sharon Academy has been through the NEASC accreditation process. Michael Livingston, the head of the academy, says the process is more demanding than what the state might envision for private school approval. Under NEASC rules, a school has to be preapproved to go through the process. A team visits the school to decide if the school looks like a candidate for accreditation. Once approved there is a self-study requiring an enormous amount of documentation to show that the school can meet a set of 15 standards.
Sharon Academy's application was about 100 pages long when it was submitted, according to Livingston. NEASC reviews the documents and sends a team to spend four days in the school and the community. They interview multiple stakeholders to verify all the information. The final product is submitted to the state, "in lieu of" the state application, said Livingston.
Small schools with fewer than 50 students often don't go through the NEASC approval process. "They are the ones this burden of reporting to the state will fall upon, we need to find a way to make it easy for small schools to respond to this request without demanding they report annually," said Moore.
The alternative approval process that is offered by the state requires potential independent schools to fill out an application form. This is reviewed by Agency of Education staff who then visit the school and review all the specifics in the application. Once this is complete, a report and recommendation are given to the SBE, according to Greg Glennon, who is currently in charge of this process at AOE. The first approval needs to be renewed after two years and after that they are required every five years.
State law requires schools applying for approval to prove fiscal viability. Glennon says that is to ensure that the school will stay open.
In May, the SBE clarified how the AOE should review financial data during applications to simplify the process, according to a memo from Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe.
The new requirements give applicants four options, including: supplying a certified audit letter from the current and prior fiscal years that outlines financial capacity; a notarized letter summarizing financial status within the present or prior fiscal year signed by a board of directors or trustees; an audit from the current or prior year performed by a certified accounting firm; or a statement backing up the school's financial capacity by a private, state or regional agency recognized by the SBE.
At next month's meeting, the Agency of Education will provide a plan to the SBE outlining how they want to proceed. There will then be public hearings and legislative approval in order to change any rules.