By Abby Carroll | Community News Service
Changes may be coming to the admission process of publicly tuitioned students at approved independent schools with a bill legislators have been working on.
The bill, H.483, looks to implement a nondiscriminatory admissions process for prospective students on public tuition. The approach would prevent approved independent schools from having mandatory interviews, campus visits or academic entrance exams, and it would bar those schools from reviewing students’ academic histories or considering their ability to pay as part of the admissions process.
“There’s a basic underpinning of a philosophy here that says a student who is on public dollars should not be told they’re not the right fit,” said Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, who chairs the House Committee on Education.
Lawmakers are looking to eliminate what is called a “good fit bias.” The idea is to ensure that students on public dollars aren’t being left out because of preconceptions about who is a good fit at certain schools.
Some approved independent schools oppose the changes the bill would create, saying interviews and reviews are integral to their admissions process.
“If we’re forced to not have any kind of admissions process, and it’s just like, you just get the name and you sign them up because we don’t trust you to be non discriminatory — that really goes against the whole way that we operate,” said Eric Rhomberg, director of the Compass School in Westminster.
For some schools that offer more personalized education plans, or for smaller more selective schools, the bill would greatly affect their admissions process, administrators say. Eliminating interviews and visits gives schools less information about students and can also open the door for those who wouldn’t normally meet a schools standards or goals.
“Our program is highly personalized and flexible, and that’s what makes us effective in helping students be successful who may not be succeeding in the traditional public school,” Rhomberg said. “So we have always had our enrollment process to be personalized (because) we want to know as much as we can about you. And we want you to learn as much as you can about our school.”
Still, Conlon, the House committee chair, said many approved independent schools already operate with a nonselective approach to admissions. At many of these schools, he said, the admissions process involves only a basic application as a way for them to apply.
“For many of the schools that many of our kids go to that are private, and they go on public dollars, they already operate this way. If you look at Bedford Academy and Burr and Burton in Manchester, they really are there to serve this public role,” Conlon said.
Another contested portion of the bill deals with tuition rates and where public dollars might be going once they enter the school’s budget. Legislators say they want to ensure no public dollars subsidize students whose families can pay tuition.
“It’s not a question that we know or we don’t know, for sure, but it is a concern, and there’s no reason why it should happen,” Conlon said. “And there’s no reason why folks should be afraid to attest to that.”
So the committee included a requirement in the bill that schools must attest that no public funds were used to subsidize privately paying students. There has been some pushback from schools on this section, however, around the idea that they don’t keep two separate budgets for the different students.
“A school has a single budget. And it’s not like we say, this revenue goes to these kids, and this other revenue goes to these other kids,” Rhomberg said.
The bill also looks to ensure the tuition rate for publicly paying students is the same, or lower, than the rate for privately paying students. Conlon said the committee got concerned after finding out that publicly paying students attending Rice Memorial High School were paying more than privately paying students because those latter students were benefiting from a fund unavailable to publicly paying.
“No school has to take publicly funded students so they can choose not to participate in the publicly funded town tuition program,” Conlon said. “So they can operate however they like, but if they want to take publicly funded students, then it needs to be essentially a relatively blind admissions process.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.