Independent Schools Bill (H.483) - April 25, 2023

On Tuesday, C.J. Spirito, Head of School at Rock Point School in Burlington joined the Senate Education Committee to talk about H.483.

Rock Point is a small independent school with students ranging from “high-flying, college-bound students to kids in the hospital because they can't function or are not getting to school.” They are not competing with public schools or larger schools for students, he noted.

He was there to raise concerns about some of the major provisions in the bill and how they would impact his specialty school. He noted that if they “took any kid without an admissions process,” they would not be able to “protect the space for the kids that are here now” and continue to successfully serve them. The bill would put the school in a difficult place because they would have to deny publicly-tuitioned students that they could help, in order to protect the current students.

In general, he communicated that he was “impressed with the efforts put into looking at discrimination in our state and our schools,” but he thinks schools like Rock Point have a niche and just aren’t comparable to general education schools. He suggested a “carve out” for schools like theirs.

Chairman Campion commented that he hadn’t “been convinced that doing interviews or campus tours is a bad thing.” He thought that it was important for “students to be thoughtful and engaged in their process too,” referring to the application and admissions process.

Senator Hashim chimed in as well, saying that he has learned “very clearly over the last few weeks” that there were “a lot more” schools than he thought who take “take students who have needs that aren't necessarily in an IEP or a 504 plan.” He noted that it is a “challenge, figuring out how to navigate that.”

Campion, countering the argument that public schools accept all, noted that the “the local CTE program turned away 60 kids last year.”

Senator Gulick wondered what “Massachusetts does and other New England states” do, in regard to this. Spirito wasn’t sure but promised to look into it. Gulick also wanted to do her own research.

Gulick noted that “the goal of the bill seems to be creating equity” by making the admissions process for independent schools that accept publicly-tuitioned students as “similar to public schools as possible.”

Campion asked how the Committee felt about pulling out the admissions language. Hashim felt this important to avoid handicapping schools that serve “niche” student cases. Senator Weeks thought they “had taken care of” many of the concerns with the 2200 rule series that prevent discrimination against students and staff.

Hashim did “find it absurd” that the state sends public dollars to “far away countries” like Switzerland and Japan. If H.483 doesn’t go anywhere, he would want to see that put somewhere (excluding Canada).

Gulick wanted to “bring it back to equity,” saying that “we know the social determinants of health.” She went on to provide an anecdote that she “has plenty of new Americans who can’t afford to move to Landgrove so that their parents can send their kids to Switzerland.”

Spirito closed his remarks by inviting members of the Committee to come to their school and “get and sense of what we do firsthand, and how applying certain requirements wouldn't really fit with our school.” He suggested there were perhaps a lot of smaller schools that this requirement didn’t make sense for, and he offered to work with the Committee to “address that too.” He suggested that policy makers set an objective of these requirements and that he would work with other independent schools to “meet the objective, not necessarily doing it the same way a public school does,” because their operating environment is “really very different.” However, he noted that their effort could have the “same spirit and the same goal,” in order to “get the job done of course, benefiting the kid.”

Erin Maguire joined the Committee next (Co-Director of Student Support Services, Essex-Westford School District). She wants to bring a “systems level lens to Vermont.” She thought that H.483 was generally a “step forward, in educating students with public dollars.” She touched on Carson v. Makin and the prohibition on “denial of funds” going to religious institutions that “might discriminate” against people in the LGBTQ community who might want to attend a religious school.

She praised the “creativity” that independent schools engage in but cautioned that “private schools” may not be meeting the expectations that the “legislature has for public schools.” She noted that nationally there are a “range of experiences” when it comes to voucher systems and she thought some of that carried over to Vermont. She argued that they should “apply an equity lens” to make sure that public dollars are being inclusive.

Weeks asked for her take on the intent and implementation of the 2200 series rules. Maguire thought that a “robust provision of services” under Act 173 was difficult for small schools to comply with, which she pointed to as one of the reasons that Act 46 happened. She understood why some small independent schools were struggling to meet the new rules. However, she didn’t think that the “floor of non-discrimination” was sufficient and would like to see “more protections for groups that often experience discrimination.”

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