Independent Schools Bill (H.483) - April 12, 2023

On Wednesday, Chairman Campion asked Legislative Counsel to share, with the Senate Education Committee, background on Act 49 and Act 173 and how they relate to independent schools. Act 49 was passed in 2017 and created a task force on independent schools. The task force was split and could not find a consensus; instead of offering a comprehensive report, each member issued their own recommendations around enrollment policy, if schools should be required to deliver special education and which categories should be required, and special education required reporting. The legislation also paused rulemaking until the legislature could act on these issues.

In 2017, the legislature followed with Act 173, which required independent schools to accept special education placements by a school district’s IEP team if they wanted to accept public dollars. It also allowed independent schools to be compensated for any costs related to providing those services.

Campion reiterated that one of the things he wants to be sure to avoid is kids going to a particular school when the professionals involved know it will “not work well” for that student. Currently, the bill requires the school to accept a student regardless of whether or not that school is the best option for that student.

Senator Hashim asked for clarity on whether students could still visit schools and tour them before making application decisions. Legislative Counsel reiterated that the language prohibits “mandatory interviews,” which would imply that students could still initiative campus visits. Hashim restated that he would want to be careful not to inadvertently impact a family’s ability to do this.

After a break, the Committee jumped into the 2200 series rules. These rules deal with independent schools and public tuitioning. Legislative Counsel noted that the new rules regarding special education go into effect on July 1st of this year. In order to be eligible after that date, even if the legislature does nothing, schools would need to be willing to accept any special education student in order to be eligible to receive public tuition dollars.

Chairman Campion threw out a hypothetical situation in which an academy just got approval; he wondered if they would be given five years in order to comply. Legislative Counsel deferred to the State Board of Education to answer that question. Campion continued that he could see the legislature requiring all schools to re-apply within a certain amount of time.

The new rules also include anti-discrimination provisions that are already in effect. One provision deals with applications to independent schools, which requires that they post a non-discrimination policy that is consistent with the Public Accommodations Act and the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act. Also, in order to be approved to receive public tuition, a school must have non-discriminatory admissions and operations processes.

Senator Hashim noted that, per the rules, an independent school “does not have to prove” they can deliver every category of special education. So, he wondered “if a student on an IEP tries to go to a school that does not have those resources… can a school say that they don’t have those resources and we can’t adequately serve you?” Legislative Counsel noted that the rules include a process for disputes about whether or not a school could provide those services. They added that it isn’t really a question of “if the student wanted to go there.” The rules require that if the IEP team from the student’s district “had done their homework and are making a decision that this school can meet this child’s needs,” then they must take the student.

Hashim wanted to understand what would happen if a family wanted a student to go to a particular school and the IEP team disagreed that school was a good fit.

NOTE: It’s the IEP team that gets to make the decision in this case.

Senator Gulick commented that this “points to basic inequities in the system” where public schools are required to accept all categories of special education and “private schools are not.” She claimed that one of the scenarios she thinks they “will see play out is geography,” arguing that if a school happens to be close to a student who requires specialized services, whether or not that school will be able to provide those services is an open question.

Legislative Counsel noted that Vermont’s tuitioning system is over 150 years old and a number of districts fully tuition their students, so there is likely a history of how this has been handled prior to the new rules.

Eric Rhomberg (Director, Compass School) joined the Committee to share information about their school. He had serious concerns about H.483 and what he sees as a “misguided basis for making educational policy.” He has been an educator for 35 years, serving as both a science teacher in both public and private schools, as well as an adjunct professor. He shared that the Compass school started in 1999 when members of the community came together to “do something better” for their students. He described the school as “a caring, close-knit, community-centered, holistic program dedicated to the success of every student.” He added that they “emphasize hands-on education, integrative projects, a proficiency-based curriculum, assessment by exhibition, connecting with the outside Community, social emotional learning, and a commitment to democracy and restorative practices.”

Kids come to the Compass School for a variety of reasons, including not succeeding in their previous schools, anxiety and depression, learning differences, falling through the cracks, or getting bullied and harassed based on their neurodivergence, race, sexual orientation, or identities. All of their alumni, he noted, tell them that their experiences were “pivotal for their happiness.”

He noted that H.483 requires independent schools accepting public tuition to enroll students without first reviewing their needs, interests and characteristics. Small schools like Compass use the enrollment process to determine if they are capable of caring for and teaching students to help them make a new commitment toward their own education. He added that “small schools are successful where large schools can fail because the education is personalized.”

The bill also requires an assurance that no public funds are used to subsidize the tuition of private payer students. The objection to subsidizing students is inappropriately commodifying them. Rhomberg “fears that this provision would hurt lower income families, because our school has a high number of students families that qualify for free lunch.”

Recently, a prospective student visited Compass with her family. She's a young trans woman who is currently schooled online. She had dropped out of a large Union High School, after being bullied to the point of suicide, over her non-conformity. According Rhomberg, she expressed “real hope that she could actually fit in” and her family “had tears in their eyes” realizing that Compass was a safe haven for their child.

This story highlighted, for him, that a small school alternative is “crucial to providing equity” (as it was for this student) and having a “diversity of school options that are accessible to families is crucial for student health and the diversity of opportunities for all our kids and families.”

He noted that what Independent Schools do have in common with public schools is they are all valuable resources in our overall educational system to help prepare all students to contribute toward a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world. Our whole educational system shares that mission, he claimed, and public policy should be crafted to promote diversity.

Gulick asked if he could focus in on specific aspects of the bill that he has a problem with. Rhomberg responded that the “devil in most of these things is in the details of how this really plays out.” He pointed out that the admissions process laid out in the bill is very “counter to their student-centered educational philosophy.”

The second provision that he took issue with was the requirement that the school, essentially, not offer subsidies to private-pay students. He believes this is a “misguided provision that inappropriately separates students” for accounting purposes. He was confident that the towns sending their kids to Compass were “100% satisfied with their town tuition dollars supporting this learning community for their kids.”

NOTE: This seems similar to arguments in favor of universal school meals, where this separation for accounting purposes inherently creates an equity issue.

Senator Weeks asked if the school had ever been in a situation where there were more students applying for seats than there were seats available. Rhomberg answered that it had happened rarely and that they would take students on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Hashim wanted to flag this accounting issue for future discussion. Weeks voiced that his understanding was that it was based on tuition, meaning that the tuition for public students could not be higher than private-pay students. Hashim wondered if this would create an issue with paying for books or field trips. Legislative Counsel noted that the bill did not get this specific.

Gulick stated that she tended to agree with Rhomberg that small schools are great. However, she wondered if they were to create “all of these tiny little schools all over the state, would it be affordable?” Rhomberg admitted he was “over his head” on the economics of that, but disputed the assumption that small schools are “immediately more expensive.” He pointed to his school, which educates students at a cost that is “virtually lower than all public schools.”

Weeks asked about the provision around fees. Rhomberg indicated that would not be a “deal breaker” for them. They could include the fees in tuition fairly easily.

NOTE: This might be more difficult than he thinks if the provision about tuition parity goes through.

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