Returning on Friday, the House Education Committee heard from Mark Tucker (Superintendent, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union). His supervisory union tuitions nearly all high school students. He likes many of the provisions in the bill around equity and non-discrimination. He would like to see more done about special education billing and some of the reporting requirements. He also likes the notification requirements for dismissal of students from independent schools. Tucker pushed back on some of the attestations that independent schools suggested. He already has to make many of these with AOE.
He also disagreed with Secretary French’s suggestion that the best way to handle accountability issues is with a contract. He believes this should be a regulatory responsibility not an LEA responsibility. He also wondered how he was supposed to enforce a contract if they didn’t have an enforcement mechanism outside of legal action.
Representative McCann wondered about the scope of the problem with unannounced dismissals. Tucker didn’t have numbers in front of him but pointed to one example which happened last year with a student of his where they were dismissed without notifying him. He thinks there may have even been an instance where a student had been dismissed but the school was still invoicing for that student’s tuition.
Toof pushed back on the assertion that there wasn’t an enforcement mechanism in the 2200 rule series. Tucker hadn’t done his own research but based on French’s testimony from earlier in the week there didn’t appear to be a clear enforcement mechanism.
Jay Badams (Superintendent, Norwich/Hanover Interstate School District) spoke next. It was his first time in the statehouse and was relatively new to the Vermont education landscape. He came here in 2017 from Erie Pennsylvania where he was active and served on the State Board of Education. He acknowledged that the Committee had a difficult decision in front of them. He pointed to declining enrollment as creating pressures on the system because of the “zero-sum economics” involved, saying that found it ironic that “in the wake of Act 46 consolidation we continue to fund a parallel school system with negligible regulation, minimal oversight, and independence from duly elected school boards.”
He argued that schools which have 80% or more of students on public tuition are “dependent schools” rather than independent. In any other state a school with this profile would be a public charter school (Vermont is one of five states without charter schools).
He sees the “true debate” being that school choice has been a “conservative rallying cry” for decades. He pointed to Milton Friedman as the originator of this policy as a way to avoid accountability measures, he claimed. He cautioned the Committee that suggestions to create a full statewide choice system would create a “managerial nightmare.” If we commit to a free-market education system the state has a duty to make sure that there is a “level playing field” between the public and independent schools.
NOTE: Vermont’s system was the first in the country in the 1880’s, nearly four decades before Friedman was born. Vermont has actually tightened restrictions on public tuition in the last several decades. Many consider Vermont’s public tuitioning system to be the “right way” to implement a school choice system.
Chairman Conlon re-opened discussion on Friday by framing the bill as “taxpayer accountability” mechanism and feels that the bill goes “some distance” towards that goal. Legislative Counsel walked through draft 3.1 of the bill. There was new terminology proposed by the AOE for the new category of eligible schools created by the bill.
Changes from the previous draft include clarifying that therapeutic schools are not subject to this bill, reorganization of the language about open enrollment policies, fees for academic services and materials, and a request for the Agency of Education (AOE) to review all “laws, rules, quality standards, reporting requirements” that public schools adhere to and then make recommendations about which ones might make sense to apply to independent schools.
Representative Beck joined to Committee to speak to the admissions process and open enrollment system contemplated in the bill. He worried that prohibiting campus visits and other tools prohibited by the bill are used to help schools understand how they are going to serve that student. Campus visits in particular are useful to students understanding of where they want to go. If these tools were taken away, he warned. the Committee may “break down all the communication that currently exists between an independent school and the sending district.”
Representative Buss questioned how you “get to know a student and then choose to admit or not admit them without some sort of bias.”
Conlon noted that what they are hoping for is some assurance that kids are not being “counseled out” of applying in a way that results in schools picking and choosing who gets enrolled.
Representative Stone asked about an enforcement mechanism. Legislative Counsel confirmed that a complaint driven process was in place and the State Board of Education could suspend, revoke, impose conditions upon the approval of independent schools to receive public tuition.
Representative Brady suggested removing the accreditation section because it would give a “misleading sense of quality assurance.” She clarified it was a useful tool but does not further the public mission of the tuitioning program. Toof argued that “a big part” of the accreditation process is compliance with state rules. Brady thought there were two different processes between the public and private schools. Her worry was that, on the private side, NEASC accreditation was measuring performance against the mission of the school and if that mission was inherently discriminatory than the NEASC processes wouldn’t address that.
NOTE: Discriminatory issues are already addressed through other requirements for approved independent schools eligible to receive public tuition. The accreditation process was meant to create some level education quality assurance. These processes were so rigorous that public schools did not want to be forced to go through them because of limited time and resources.
Representative Williams voiced agreement with Toof that with the new 2200 rule series requirements around anti-discrimination would shift the paradigm of these reviews because compliance with state rules would now include these. Conlon framed the debate as outsourcing oversight or having AOE do it and providing them with the resources to do it.
There was not a strong argument either way and Conlon agreed to strike the language. He then steered the conversation back to the enrollment topic. He voiced discomfort about the ability for schools to pick and choose which publicly funded students they enroll. Brady preferred to keep the current language because she worried that any sort of application requirements, even if admissions decisions aren’t based on them, could inherently be discriminatory.
Representative Brownell voiced concern that we might “punish kids” because the committee was crafting language to address schools that are largely dependent on public dollars, but they are likely creating collateral damage for specialty schools (like ski academies) who may only take a few publicly-funded students. This will take away options that students may not have access to otherwise. Buss argued that “some students already don’t have that choice.”
Returning a couple hours later Legislative Counsel returned with updated language in draft 4.1 of the bill. There were some minor language and date changes that had been updated. Conlon acknowledged that they likely would not find consensus on this particular topic. He asked if members of the Committee had any final statements to make. Brady spoke up saying that she became a teacher 17 years ago because she believes that public schools are the “only institution we have left” to create a more “just and equal society.” She hoped that she was making the best decisions for students in Vermont because this is what she was passionate about following her years in public education. She restated that fundamentally she believes that “public dollars need to go to schools that can educate all students. Period, full stop.”
Toof spoke next, saying that he appreciated all the work the committee has done on this bill. He commented that his “holdup” was the admissions provision and that he “hadn’t heard enough testimony.” He added that “if that was out” he would be much more likely to support this bill. He shared that he things many people “vote with their feet” when it comes to education. He did this for his kids and they currently attend public schools.
Representative Taylor echoed these remarks. Up until the accreditation provision was included he was able to support the bill. Brownell also shared he couldn’t support the bill because of that provision.
Representative Stone shared that she will be supporting the bill, but there is still “a lot of work to be done.” She reminded the Committee that public education is a common benefit of all Vermonters and that it is the policy of the state that all Vermont students receive an education that is substantially equal.
Williams stated that she represents a part of the state struggles most with suicide and depress, struggles most with transportation, ability to reach public schools, to keep a state college, and even to keep libraries open.” And this is “one more struggle they will have to go through,” she said as she burst into tears.
Conlon thanked her for being an advocate for the Northeast Kingdom and expressed regret that they could not get to a unanimous decision on this provision. They proceed to a vote which was 7-4-1 in favor of the bill with Toof, Taylor, Williams, and Brownell voting no.