August 19th, 2019

VOTE FOR VERMONT:Special Education Requirements For Independent Schools

Co-hosts Pat McDonald and Ben Kinsley recently sat down with Sharon Academy Head of School Michael Livingston to discuss some of the challenges facing Vermont’s independent schools. They specifically discussed their concerns over bill S.229.

S.229 is a bill seeking to expand special education requirements for independent schools that wish to accept students under Vermont’s school choice system. Students in the school choice program utilize their tax-based public tuition dollars to pay for enrollment at an independent school. School choice is a great system that offers students the flexibility to enroll in academic programs that complement the public school system. Having the ability to choose to pursue an education in an environment that is best suited to the student’s learning style has immense value.

On the surface S.229 appears to be a benevolent bill, ensuring access for students of all learning abilities to the full breadth of the school choice program. And indeed, schools who receive public dollars should work within their capacity to be accessible to the public. The keyword here, and a point of significant concern, is capacity. Where S.229 falls short is taking into account the real-world impacts of implementing these requirements within schools that are simply too small to handle it.

One of the biggest concerns staffing requirements. Simply, the employee pool to meet the new requirements does not exist. When a student with additional needs is placed in school, a teacher is initially provided for the student through the LEA through one academic year. This teacher is hired by the LEA – after that, the onus is on the school to provide the staffing. Many independent schools, especially the smaller ones, wonder what will happens if, despite their best efforts, they are not able to secure the proper staffing. This would put them in violation of Vermont rule and the likely result would be the affected student being forced back into the public school regardless of how successful they are at the independent school.

The paperwork and admin responsibility is another major concern as well. The state and federal paperwork required is significant. Large schools have the capacity to handle the workflow, however it would be far too much for a small school to endure. Faced with this additional workload, this could either cause schools to stop accepting public tuition students or cause them to have to close altogether. This is very detrimental to school choice. 

There is a sentiment within the independent schools that S.229 is a solution looking for a problem and one that only impacts a very small number of students. According to Mill Moore, Executive Director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, school choice attendance at independent schools this year is 2810 students, while 2908 choice students chose to attend public schools. The independent schools enrollment is spread out over 45 schools, of which 11 currently are approved to provide special education services. Those 11 schools are the larger schools, enrolling 90% of all tuitioned students. That means only approximately 280 students are being publicly tuitioned to independent schools that do not provide special education. If the statewide proportion of students on special education programs of 16% were applied to that small group, it would mean this legislation would only impact approximately 44 students on IEPs, out of a statewide total of more than 13,000.

Given the concerns surrounding this bill, there is much reason for caution. The exact legislation is still under discussion, but the question really needs to be asked whether the intended benefits of this bill are really worth jeopardizing school choice and Vermont’s independent schools.

Note: Guest Michael Livingston discussed lots of issues and topics, not all of which are included in the above summary. If you would like to see the entire show, please go to vote802.com for this show and a complete listing of all Vote for Vermont shows.

The comments reflected in this article are opinions stated by our guests, and should not be considered the opinion or position of Campaign for Vermont, its Staff, or its Officers. Any rebuttals are welcome and can be expressed on the websites and Facebook pages of VFV and CFV.

Eric LaMantagne

Executive Director

Campaign for Vermont Prosperity

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