Independent Schools Bill - March 14, 2023

Dan French (Secretary of Education) shared with the House Education Committee on Tuesday that the Agency of Education did not fully support the bill. The main reason is because they just embarked on rulemaking with the State Board of Education (SBE), which he described as “yeoman’s work… to bring forward a much-improved regulatory framework for independent schools.”

He is concerned about changing the rules before they even go into full effect. His preference would be to see the new 2200 series rules go into effect and then make adjustments as necessary.

NOTE: The rules he is referring to govern which schools can be approved to receive public tuitioning. Starting July 1 eligible schools must accept all categories of special education students through a blind admissions process and attest to anti-discrimination statements protecting both students and staff.

While he would be in favor of strengthening the non-discriminatory provisions of statute, they oppose the effort to restructure the whole system and he specifically pointed out that the Governor would not support that.

Chairman Conlon argued that “many” of the provisions in the bill where “outside the rule 2200 series.” He pointed to geographical limits and accreditation (which is true). French sees the accreditation issue as “central” to the 2200 series, saying that they are looking at that closely with the SBE now.

The border issue is new in his eyes, he would prefer to let the new regulatory scheme “settle in” before making additional changes. He continued on to say that “it’s always been problematic to develop a coherent approach to regulation when multiple variables are changing simultaneously.”

Representative Stone asked what the mechanisms are in place to make sure that the 2200 series rules are implemented. French didn’t not believe we had such a mechanism for either independent schools or public schools.

Conlon pushed further, asking what was in place to make sure that these rules were complied with. French restated that this is an approval process and that there was a subsequent complaint process that has been exercised in the past if a school is not meeting their obligations.

NOTE: The accountability mechanism for independent schools is that the SBE could revoke their eligibility status if they violate the terms of their original approval.

Representative Austin asked what would happen if an independent school didn’t meet proficiency standards. French explained that the new rules they are proposing for public school under the Education Quality Review (EQR) process. He wanted to wait until 2200 was fully implemented before they moved forward on other initiatives like trying to apply this EQR to independent schools.

Conlon pointed to some of the concerns they had heard from Local Education Agencies (LEA’s), which in Vermont are primarily Supervisory Unions, around not knowing what was happening with students after they “send them off” to an independent school. French thought this sort of reporting was better addressed through contractual agreements between the sending district and the receiving school. Conlon argued that sending districts were hesitant to use tuition as leverage for this information. French questioned how else the local district or the state would gain leverage and shared that he didn’t think there was a clean way to operationalize the changes the bill contemplated.

Representative Buss wondered where that leaves legislators if there was no follow through on either the 2200 series or the Committee bill. French, didn’t respond directly, but thought it would be an interesting conversation to look at what could be done in statute to help districts with contractual agreements (implying that could be the accountability mechanism).

French closed by saying that the state needs to understand how many independent schools are interested in moving forward under the new regulatory framework.

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