Stakeholders reach for compromise over independent school requirements
HILARY NILES, VT Digger
Jo-Anne Unruh, executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, expresses concerns for students with special education needs at independent schools, during testimony before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.
Schools, teachers, administrators and other stakeholders rekindled debate Tuesday over standards that Vermont’s independent schools must meet.
The discussion is round two for a controversial proposal to require independent schools to comply with the same standards public schools must meet for special education, teacher licensing, educational assessments, free meals and other conditions.
The Vermont Independent Schools Association and the School Boards Association have met on their own to hash out differences between the two organizations. Representatives from both groups reported some progress to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon when legislators considered S.91.
If the groups come to terms, differences of opinion between the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, the Vermont-National Education Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association likely will remain.
Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-NEA, said he’d be willing to talk about creative solutions to concerns about teacher licensing, for example. "But we have to be in the room to talk about that," Cook said.
He appeared perturbed and concerned that his union -- the state’s largest, representing about 11,500 Vermont educators -- had not been involved in pre-session negotiations over the bill. Senate Education Committee Chair Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, assured Cook that he and all other stakeholders would have a seat at the table as discussions continue.
As written, S.91 would only apply to independent schools that accept public money as tuition for one-third or more of their enrolled students, or independent schools organized primarily to serve a general student population.
A school such as the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, for example, would not be subject to the requirements. It was unclear at the committee meeting whether athletic schools such as Burke Mountain Academy, which serves the local population as well as elite skiers, would fall under the new umbrella for compliance.
Stakeholders from all constituencies underscored the value of independent schools. The division among them is whether public funds going to those independent schools should come with strings -- and if so, which ones.
Supporters want to tie the money to state laws ensuring equal access to education and consistent educational standards for all students. Opponents want to preserve the independence of independent schools.
The conversation occurs as public school enrollment continues to decline, school budgets continue to grow and independent schools continue to multiply in the state.
Public dollar threshold
There is some disagreement among stakeholders over the proportion of public funding that should trigger new standards for independent schools.
School Boards Association executive director Stephen Dale said a school can be considered "substantially" participating in the public system if at least one-third of its students are publicly funded. Others may lower the bar to 20 percent, Dale said, but he finds one-third to be reasonable.
Vermont Independent Schools Association executive director Mill Moore fundamentally disagrees with that premise.
"An independent school is a provider of education, not public education," Moore stated. "Independent schools do things that public schools either cannot do or choose not to."
In testimony from the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, executive director Jo-Anne Unruh underscored the role of her constituency and Local Education Agencies. Not only is education access for students with disabilities an important civil rights issue, she argued, but it’s LEA’s responsibility to ensure access -- whether a student attends a public school or not.
For that reason, Unruh said, she’s resistant to setting any public dollar threshold before an independent school is required to meet the needs of special education students.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, was more concerned for the time being about a threshold’s potential unintended consequences than where exactly it may be set. He wondered out loud if a school might structure itself to keep below the one-third proportion of publicly funded students, effectively limiting school access in the wake of a policy designed to ensure access.
Unruh disputed Moore’s assertion that special education students are not discriminated against. She said she’s seen it happen, but Moore contends that he’s yet to see any evidence supporting such a claim.
Unruh also urged attention to students’ special education needs at an earlier age, rather than waiting for statutory 504 accommodations or comprehensive special education evaluations to kick in.
Dale said that requiring special education services for at least four out of 13 categories of need, as S.91 currently proposes, could be better handled for both students and schools. Independents should be required to meet the needs of any admitted student, he said, but should not have to keep staff and equipment on-hand just in case a student with special needs walks through the door.
"This should be student-focused," Dale said. "We don’t want people spending a lot of money on things that aren’t benefiting students and that are just adding to overall costs -- which are as you know of interest in this building," he said, pointing outside the room to the rest of the Statehouse.
Moore suggested that reducing the administrative burden for approval to attend to special needs would help more schools offer special services. He also said that it used to be standard practice for independents to work with their supervisory unions in much the same way public schools work with supervisory unions now to meet special education needs.
"I’m told that level of cooperation has been substantially diminished," Moore said, but he wasn’t aware of any legal or administrative barriers to resuming coordination.
The proposal to require blind admission to independent schools will also be contentious. Dale said it’s a fundamental question of equity from the school board’s perspective, but Moore said it could be a "deal-breaker" for some independent schools.
"I’m sure it’s done with the best intentions to make sure a student matches the capacity of the school," Dale said. But if an independent school will be a "significant" deliverer of public education, then he believes students should have an equal shot at access regardless of their own abilities or their parents’ "development potential."
Rather than focus on process, Moore suggested, perhaps a solution can be found in results. He said already about 85 percent of Vermont’s independent schools practice blind admissions. If 10 percent more could be coaxed there on a voluntary basis, for example, that would leave just a handful without the policies.
Isn’t that enough progress, he asked. Because the last vestige could represent an insurmountable hurdle.
Dale and Moore appear to have reached a deal on the bill’s proposal to require all the affected independent school teachers to be licensed in accordance with public school standards.
"We are willing to let that issue go," Dale said.
Aside from requiring special education staff to prove their licenses and endorsements are current, he indicated he would not want to hold up the rest of the negotiations for anything more.
The independent and school board groups also appeared to have come to some agreement over educational assessments, which they said should be struck from the bill.
Publicly funded students at independent schools must participate in assessments already, they said. The protocol is written into a different state statute, and is therefore not necessary in S.91.
Dale said it felt like a "reach" to require testing of all students, and Moore argued that it constituted an undue intrusion upon privately funded students and their families.
Free and reduced price meals
Moore said a requirement to provide free or reduced price meals to low-income students should not be a problem.
He said some of the logistics may need to be ironed out, and his group might ask for state support in the case of a couple small schools that might need to upgrade facilities.
S.91 will not be headed to the full chamber for debate anytime soon.
Moore told the committee that his group’s proposed amendments would be at least a week or more in the making. And McCormack says he wants to hear from more stakeholders.
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