Independent Schools Bill - March 15, 2023

On Wednesday the House Education Committee came back to this topic, hearing from Sue Ceglowski (Executive Director, Vermont School Boards Association) who shared that she was testifying on behalf of the Education Equity Alliance. She called the current situation following the Carson v. Makin decision a “defining crossroads.” She believes that there are equity and accountability gaps in Vermont’s current “parallel education systems.” An issue she pointed to was “increased pressures” from expanded access to public tuition.

She emphasized that public dollars should provide an equal educational opportunity for all families, public dollars should be transparent and accountability, and our system should treat all kids and staff equitably and without discrimination. They prefer that the Committee move forward on H.258 instead of their committee bill.

Ceglowski acknowledged that she was there to speak to the committee bill and said that they were asking for “significant revisions” to that bill. She felt that the 2025 implementation of attestations seems too long. She believes they can achieve greater equity by reducing barriers to enrollment, claiming that current enrollment practices are discriminatory.

She called for a series of languages changes including some sort of guarantee of education quality provisions in Act 1 (which is applicable to public schools and not even fully implemented yet); strengthening the language around attestations; and applying all rules, laws, and reporting requirements applicable to public schools.

Ceglowski responded to Secretary French’s comments from the previous day that very few districts have contracts in place with independent schools and those that are in place are often “lacking.” She also does not believe that using invoices as an accountability tool feasible.

NOTE: There is an existing accountability mechanism through the State Board of Education. Ceglowski is either ignorant of this fact or purposefully avoiding it.

Conlon clarified that there was no current default contract that the Agency of Education has instituted. Ceglowski agreed that it would take a significant amount of time for superintendents and school boards to implement this on their own.

Representative Stone asked what she would like to see if there was a standard contract. Ceglowski identified the enrollment process as one area. Additional areas she identified included:

  • Annual capacity reporting and an agreement to accept all students in a non-discriminatory manner.
  • Prohibit admissions testing and other traditional admissions screening.
  • Prohibit any extra fees on students and their families (didn’t specify if this should only be limited to types of fees that public schools don’t charge).
  • Require compliance with the Education Quality Standards.
  • Reporting to the Local Education Agency (supervisory unions) regarding punitive actions and absenteeism.
  • Reporting back on state assessment data (this already happens to the Agency of Education).

Representative Buss asked what the best way was to enforce anything that is put into place. Ceglowski identified the Public Accommodations Act as one of the enforcement tools (which is already applicable). She suggested amending the act to allow private right of action against schools. This would be an alternative to the State Board of Education enforcement and potential loss of eligibility for independent schools. It was suggested that the District Quality Standards (DQS) could be applied to independent schools. Conlon identified the ultimate accountability mechanism here tuition itself.

NOTE: It’s not clear how the DQS’ could be applied to independent schools, they are written specifically for public school districts which is a fundamentally different structure.

Representative Williams asked if there was anything in Act 173 that would allow for enforcement. Ceglowski hesitated but said there was enforcement (through the State Board of Education) but there is a process for arbitration or mediation to resolve issues where services could not be provided.

Conlon mentioned that the academies sent some “helpful feedback.” Their suggestion as that instead of having specific reporting requirements, rather encourage more conversations between Local Education Agencies (LEA’s) and independent schools around these topics. LEA’s are a federal designation under the No Child Left Behind legislation which in Vermont are supervisory unions.

Roy Starling (Head of School, The Riverside School) testified next. They have 120 students in grades pre-k through 8. About 60-70% are on public tuition. One in five are receive learning support services.

They have been around just over 40 years and their main building was an old farmhouse. Their philosophy is more freedom of movement for students but also more responsibility. He commented that “for generations Vermont has been working to attract young families with kids… what we have to offer is outdoor access… equally important is education access.” He sees this as a cornerstone of the Northeast Kingdom.

One of his main concerns is that an immense amount of time energy when into the 2200 series of rules. He worried that “this thoughtful process” may be disrupted by the legislature without adequate thought or care.

He also had some concerns around reporting redundancy. As head of school, he has access to the state portal but doesn’t necessarily have the ability to export and share test results externally. He was quite surprised to hear that superintendents didn’t already have access to the state portal.

He also questioned the truancy requirements because he already notifies superintendents if a student is AWOL. The current bill with a three-day reporting requirement could be problematic because of the frequency. They aggregate attendance on paper on a weekly basis. He thought this might be even more problematic for very small schools, like the East Burke School which has only 12 students.

Representative Brady asked if the private pay tuition was the same as a public-pay student. Starling confirmed that it was the same but they also offer some scholarships to private-pay students.

One concern about blind admissions is that sometimes you don’t have enough time to implement a support plan and services after the learning need is disclosed. Starling highlighted his own learning disability and why it has been so important to him to build support for his students. His own needs where not well supported in the educational environment he grew up in, and he doesn’t want his kids to have that same experience.

Julie Hansen (Head of School, Thaddeus Stevens School) spoke next, saying that they had just completed their second round. Hansen, along with a number of other parents, founded the school in East Burke in the 1990’s. She shared that her school is all about equity, inclusion, and diversity. In the mold of their namesake.

She understood that the drive for this bill was out of concern for inclusion, anti-discrimination, and accountability. She believes the current mechanisms provide this accountability, pointing to accreditation as one of these mechanisms.

“One school simply cannot meet the needs of every student. One methodology cannot serve every student,” she stated, “the diversity of Vermont’s families propels the need for diversity in how we provide education.” They have seen families who send different kids to different schools (both public and independent). She shared that large schools cannot always provide the level of personal experience that some students require. Particularly now that emotional needs of students is heightened.

Under the current system (which is changing on July 1), parents with students on IEP’s were forced (by the school district) to waive their right to special education services if they were attending a school that didn’t offer them. Despite this, Hansen shared a story of a student on a “serious IEP” whose parents chose to send him to Thaddeus Stevens regardless. The parents paid the tuition in order for him to have a relatively “normal” education experience. They believed in this so much that they were willing to pay out of pocket for this.

She also pushed back on suggestions around teacher licensing. There is no study, which she is aware of, that says a licensed teacher is a better or more effective at educating students. If we want to teach every child we need to allow them to find the environments and methodologies that work for them. She worried that there was a bit of “urban-rural tension” here.

Conlon asked what percentage of students were public-pay versus private-pay. For Thaddeus Stevens, it was about 8 out of 35 students. Brady asked again if the tuition rate for public-pay and private-pay was the same. Hanson confirmed that it was.

Representative Austin wondered how the schools assess student performance. Starling shared that the Riverside School had five consecutive valedictorians at St. Johnsbury Academy.

Next up was Jennifer Zaccara (Head of School, Vermont Academy) shared that her school will be 120 years old in 2026. There are roughly around 200 students and was founded as a co-ed school which was pretty unusual in 1876. She is also on the AISNE board.

Timothy Newbold (Head of School, Village School of North Bennington) joined her for a walk through of their comments on the draft bill. They would like to see clarification around enrollment requirements, there is concern that if a student is placed in an independent school and then later on it turns out not to be a good fit there is no process currently in place to handle that. They want schools to be able to work with the LEA to find the right balance.

They very much encourage all independent schools to become accredited. They find this process rigorous and beneficial, but they wanted to clarify whether or not therapeutic schools would be required to seek accreditation.

They also think that the truancy reporting could be tricky and warrants further discussion and clear definitions within the process.

The Public Accommodations Act is already a requirement for membership in the Vermont Independent Schools Association (VISA) and they are currently in the process of collecting affirmations of compliance. They also believe that, because this is being asked of independent schools, perhaps the Agency of Education (AOE) should also require this from public schools.

They had looked at the schools receiving tuition today and they felt that the 25 mile limit on tuition was arbitrary and unhelpful. One example is Proctor Academy, which is 2 miles beyond the geographical limit. There is also concern that some Vermont schools are receiving out of state tuition and there may be some issues with reciprocity. She added that all contiguous states have anti-discrimination provisions that should be satisfactory. They recommended that they just make the language contiguous states.

In the academic progress reporting section they would like to see a reciprocal exchange of information and a clear process. Zaccara added that any of these new requirements should also be applied to public schools who receive public tuition from other districts.

They were also quite concerned about the freeze on new approvals. There was at least one school currently in progress the impacts of this are unknown. Zacarra wondered what the justification for this provision was. Conlon conceded that they probably should look at what applications are in progress but that the town tuition program was not meant to be a “growth industry.”

Brady repeated her question about the percentage of publicly funded students. For Vermont Academy there was 15 out of 200. Brady followed with a question about what the longest commute for day students. Zaccara said the longest she was aware of was about 50 minutes. For North Bennington School they have over 90% publicly funded students.

Representative Stone asked Zaccara about the admissions process and the interview and fees associated with applications. She shared that they do waive the fees if families are unable to afford them and they do have scholarship programs that go all the way back to their founding. What they are looking for during the application process is students who can thrive at the school. They see themselves as a partner for students and families. Generally, they are “very open to all of their applicants.” Their four pillars of learning are ingenuity, independence, community, and land (outdoor learning). They are also looking for passions and interest for students so they can get them signed up for the right classes.

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