Chairman Campion asked Legislative Counsel to walk the Senate Education Committee through H.483 on Friday at a high level. During the walk-through, Senator Hashim questioned why therapeutic schools were excluded from the bill. Legislative counsel noted that those schools were highly specialized and may not be able to meet the requirements in the bill. The intent of this bill is to address general education independent schools who receive public tuition.
Legislative Counsel reminded the Committee that the 2200 rule series changes from Act 173 are about to go into effect this summer, and included the anti-discrimination provisions in the current bill. The rules also prohibit discriminatory admissions process, but H.483 goes further in prohibiting admissions processes completely. Chairman Campion wondered how a school might “determine if as student is the right fit if you can’t interview them.”
Hashim asked if the requirements in the bill were similar to what is required in public schools: “I want to make sure that the rules public schools have to follow are similar if not identical to the rules we are trying to impose for independent schools.” Legislative Counsel answered that there are some differences in what public schools are allowed to consider for non-resident students. They noted that the House thought that perhaps the VSBA model policy might have been discriminatory; it is therefore unclear what practice is in place.
Senator Gulick noted the attestation forms required by the bill and questioned that process, saying “that doesn’t seem like the same process that public schools have to go through.” Legislative Counsel couldn’t speak to that specifically, but their understanding was that there were lots of forms that public schools have to attest to. This is not the only oversight of independent schools, they still have to go through the approval process with the State Board of Education and ultimately they are the ones who have oversight.
After the explanation, Gulick commented that “I could be wrong, but the level of oversight is very different.” Legislative Counsel noted that the points of accountability vary depending on which specific issue you are looking at. For example, the Public Accommodations Act (PAA) may apply equally to both public and independent schools who receive publicly-tuitioned students.
NOTE: She is wrong. Public schools also have a complaint-driven process that is very similar to what is currently in place for independent schools. However, the stake may actually be higher for independent schools because it is unclear what mechanisms the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education actually have to hold public schools accountable.
Hashim requested more testimony on the PAA and whether it could “incidentally burden” a religious organization. Essentially, what he was getting at was whether a religious school could challenge the PAA on the basis of religious discrimination.
Continuing through the walk through of the bill, Hashim questioned the 25-mile limit and wondered if a school 27 miles away might have standing to challenge the law under discrimination. Legislative Counsel thought that the most likely challenge would be under the dormant commerce clause of the US Constitution. Hashim was in favor of cutting off out of state tuitioning completely, but there was concern among other members of the Committee that this might be logistically challenging, because some out of state schools may be closer in proximity to tuitioning districts than some in-state schools.
Representative Conlon joined the Committee and Campion teed up the conversation by asking him to explain the “problem you are trying to solve here.” Conlon shared that they started with Carson v. Makin case that led them to look at the “accountability involved” in independent school oversight as it related to the public tuitioning system. He argued that “it hadn’t been looked at in a comprehensive way” in quite some time. H.483t, he argued, puts forefront “Vermont’s values of non-discrimination” as the “core values” for not just protected classes but also “good fit bias.”
He also believes this affords some level of “taxpayer accountability.” He argued that there was “not much” financial accountability surrounding public tuitioning dollars to independent schools and that was something they sought to address.
The 25-mile radius was introduced because he “doubted that they contemplated” sending kids to Europe when public tuitioning was originally created 150 years ago.
Additionally, Conlon stated that public tuitioning system was “never meant to be a growth industry” hence the moratorium on the approvals of new eligible schools.
Hashim asked what happens when a school says, “thanks but no thanks we’re not going to attest to this.” Conlon responded that the State Board of Education would not approve them to receive public tuition if they did not attest to this.
NOTE: We have already seen this happen in two instances without the provisions of this bill in place.
Conlon noted that the most debated part of the bill was the admissions criteria. However, he believes that “a student who is taxpayer-funded should not be told they are not the right fit for a school.” He admitted that statute is vague on non-resident students being admitted to public schools (the language in the bill only applies to independent schools), but their committee is looking at this.
Gulick asked about equity for staffing purposes. For example, pay disparities between executives and teachers. These were not contemplated in the bill and, as far as Conlon knew, no complaints on this spectrum have been voiced.
Senator Weeks pointed out that under the bill an independent school could charge private-pay students academic fees but not public-pay students.
NOTE: Important in the context that tuition is capped for public-pay students but does not factor in fees that may be charged.
Senator Williams shared a situation that was brought to his attention where a religious school generally charged $7k in tuition but was charging the district for a publicly tuitioned student up to the statewide announced tuition amount, which was much higher. This is a situation the bill seeks to address.
Weeks commented that “for districts that don’t operate a school… the state is benefiting from tuitioning students out of this school desert,” but, he added “we seem to be pushing these guys really hard.” He asked if the House had sought compromise in the bill because if these schools “say no” to accepting public tuition, what would happen to students, he wondered.
Campion asked if they received testimony from parents whose students didn’t get into an independent school they wanted to attend. Conlon indicated they got some emails regarding that.
Campion asked, on behalf of Senators Starr and Kitchel, why the House precluded tuitioning to Canada. Conlon responded that there were a number of reasons that converged for limiting that. Some members of his committee were uncomfortable sending tax dollars out of the country, some were concerned about the precedent of students driving past public schools to reach Canada, some were concerned about special education requirements.
Gulick called H.483 “a great bill and I really appreciate [Conlon’s] work,” in particular she pointed to “turning off the spigot on new schools.”