Panel fails to break deadlock over private schools' public funding

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A panel with representatives of public and private schools has been unable to iron out differences over special education and financial accountability for independent schools in advance of a legislative deadline.

In fact, the gulf between public and private school interests hasn't changed since the study committee's first meeting in May. It will miss a Dec. 1 deadline for recommending a solution to lawmakers.

The Legislature formed the panel last spring to sort out differences over requirements that private schools must meet in order to receive public tuition money.

A number of communities in Vermont have school choice, meaning private schools receive taxpayer dollars for student tuition. Private schools have to get approved by the Agency of Education to be able to accept students.

In 2015, the State Board of Education began to revise the rules governing that process to require more financial information and open enrollment, including for special education, at private schools seeking to qualify for property tax dollars.

Last year, as the rule process moved forward, the proposals met opposition from the private school community, the governor's office and some lawmakers.

The Legislature stepped in and created the study committee, giving it a Dec. 1 deadline to report its recommendations. The panel's next and final meeting will be Dec. 15.

The two sides have not been able to come to any final agreement on either of the issues before them.

"There remains a pretty big gap around views on how this issue (of accepting special education students from tuition towns) needs to be dealt with," said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association and a member of the study committee.

On financial disclosure, the Agency of Education wants private schools to provide more documentation at the time of approval than they are willing to give. The agency is concerned that a private school reliant on public funds could fold, leaving the state holding the bag.

To provide reassurance of financial health, the private schools would like to rely on a statement from an accrediting body or licensed accountant; or a review by a team of peers from the Council of Independent Schools along with an audit report; or an IRS Form 990 for nonprofits.

The state Department of Financial Review looked over these requirements and said they were "very weak."

Similarly, the two sides can't find common ground when it comes to educating special education students. The public school advocates want open enrollment for students using public dollars. Private schools would have to provide services for any disability affecting a student who chose that school, even if it meant hiring special educators.

"The point is, there are schools in parts of the state that accept large numbers of publicly funded students," Mace said. "If there is a child with any kind of a disability, the fact that that child can't go to the same school as their peers are going to, simply because that school has not been approved for special education — that is not right. That is what we are talking about."

Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, who chairs the study committee, agreed and said it is a civil rights issue.

The private schools want to maintain selective admissions policies that are tied to the mission of their schools. Many of the smaller private general education schools in Vermont do not offer special education at all or only in a couple of the 13 categories. As a result, most special education students living in choice towns choose public schools.

The private schools have said they will offer special education as long as the public school system provides the teachers, administration and training needed.

Seth Bongartz, board chair at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester and one of the representatives for the private schools on the panel, said they want to offer special education but smaller schools don't have the capacity.

"How does a small independent school with 25 kids without special education now get to the point where they can get the infrastructure in place to do it?" he asked. That is why they want a partnership between public and private schools as a "practical" solution.

But Jo-Anne Unruh, who represents special education interests on the committee, said the issues are the same for small public schools.

"We have very small (public) schools providing services required by federal and state law, and if our state is having difficulty sustaining that in the context of the public school system, it's hard for me to imagine at the state level we will create a mechanism to sustain the smallest independent schools" on the back of the public school system, she said.

When Bongartz asked how a small private school could do this on its own, Mace and others said they do not have to, but in that case they can't receive public funds. Bongartz said that would mean some of these schools would close.

Recently, Gov. Phil Scott sent a letter directing the education establishment to hold the line on spending and to consider cutting staff, consolidating classrooms and closing schools.

In light of the governor's letter instructing public schools to close if they are too small, Mace said she can't turn around and support small private schools: "Oh, it's OK to not serve special education kids because we are worried about you closing."

Unruh said more small private schools have opened over the last several years. "I don't understand the public policy investment — the reason why we would support those small independent schools over the public schools that are having to close," she said.

Baruth, chair of the Senate Education Committee, recommended the panel let the Legislature pick up the issue in January and create a legislative solution. "I don't view our work in here as being complete," he said.

At the study committee's next and final meeting, Baruth wants to finalize a report and forward any language the members can agree on to his Senate panel.

This idea seemed to split the members as well, with the public school representatives balking and the private schools agreeing.

Bongartz said these are huge policy questions that he thinks the Legislature should consider. If the state adopts regulations that would close some private schools, he said, he doesn't want it to be done through a back door opened by the State Board of Education. To force schools to take students "from any parent that wants to send their children there with state dollars, that will close private schools," he said.

Some of the public school advocates thought the Legislature was too political a body for this contentious issue and supported a rule-making process.

Jeff Francis, who heads the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the private schools are an integral part of the public school system. But he felt the legislative process would be harder to navigate than rule-making.

He said they are at a crossroads, with one side asking, "How we want to deal with the issue of, are we actually giving every child an opportunity to go to a school with his or her peers when publicly funded, and can we do it and meet the efficiency test?" and the other offering to do it but with conditions it would set.

"I don't know where we are going to go," Francis said.

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