Roper: Partisan legislators are going after the wrong schools

By Rob Roper

Vermont has two systems for delivering public education. The one based on parental choice and allowing students to find the right fit — “tuitioning” in 90 or so towns — is working. And the more common system that assigns a school based on zip code regardless of the student’s real needs — traditional public school — is failing. But this legislative session Democratic lawmakers, in an incredibly selfish and shortsighted tantrum, are using their new-found super-supermajority power to dismantle the system that’s working and expand the one that is failing.

The common attack by critics of Vermont’s independent schools is that they don’t serve all students, especially those with challenging special needs. This charge is not exactly true. What is also not true is that the government run public schools actually do serve the needs of all students. They may be nominally required to do so. They may be in many cases warehousing these kids. But Vermont public schools are increasingly not serving them. In fact, the mandate to “accept all children” into one building is creating a dangerously toxic environment for all involved — students, teachers, support staff and administrators.

These facts were laid bare in testimony before the House Education Committee from representatives of the Vermont Superintendents’ Association discussing the increasing mental health issues that students are bringing into classrooms, and the schools’ lack of staffing and lack of training to deal with it.

Lynn Cota of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union outlined in a presentation the disturbing patterns of behavior they are now seeing throughout the Vermont public school system: “Violent outbursts and vandalism, increased sexualized behavior, disruption and defiance, and threats of harm to self or others.”

Cota’s testimony exposed the truth about how public schools are failing special needs students. Contrary to the belief that public schools take all comers, students who have severe special needs are farmed out to programs specifically trained to treat those needs. This is a good thing! (It’s a good thing when independent schools do this, too.) However, what is happening today is that that these therapeutic programs are either full and have waiting lists, or the students being sent by the public schools have issues too severe for these programs to handle. In both cases, the student is sent back into the public-school setting where his or her needs are not being met.

“So, what this means,” said Cota, “is that schools have students, often in many of our cases many students, whose placements in our public schools don’t match the intensity and complexity of their needs. So, they are in the least restrictive environment with needs that can be at the level that historically would have resulted in something like residential treatment.” This dynamic is destructive to the special needs student and the rest of the school community.

Libby Bonesteel, superintendent of the Washington Roxbury school district, described what results from this in chilling terms. “Public schools are in a crisis,” said Bonesteel. “Every school system has students who are explosive in ways that we have never seen before. … Teachers are quite literally scared, and administrators are at a loss. People are getting hurt, and rooms are getting trashed.”

Bonesteel described one classroom that is covered in plywood because of the amount of damage students have done to the walls, and a morning she spent cleaning up an elementary school’s library after a child went on a tantrum and ripped five hundred books off the shelves.

Cota concluded that as a result of this dysfunctional dynamic, Vermont’s public school system is at a breaking point: “We have students who are not having their mental health needs met, and we have staff, teachers and administrators who are approaching burnout if they’re not already there.”

The teacher burn-out crisis was highlighted in earlier testimony by Jay Nichols of the Vermont Principal’s Association, who said that there are currently 1,056 unfilled open jobs in the Vermont public K-12 school system. “This is a crazy number, especially when you consider we’re not in July or August,” said Nichols.

“Additionally,” said Nichols, “we are seeing support staff such as general paraeducators and individual student aides being pulled away from their assignments to cover classrooms so school can be held when teachers are absent. This creates huge issues with students not being able to access IEP [special education] services simply because there is no personnel available to do so.”

In addition to the lack of staff, Colin Robinson of the VTNEA testified, “There are 1,200 teachers serving on provisional or emergency licenses in our schools. That means folks who don’t have full certification or are teaching outside of their licensed subject area.” A normal number, according to Robinson would be in the 200 range.

At the end of her presentation Cota was asked if these disruptions were having an impact on the other students in the schools. “The reality,” said Cota, “is that we have disruptions in our schools every day. I think we are all trying to do our best to minimize that impact on other students, but other students are seeing things that similar cohorts of students would not have seen five or ten years ago. So, I think there’s an impact on our students. … And it’s not only the students, it’s also the staff.”

A majority in the Vermont Legislature cling to the myth that putting all students together in the same building and giving them all the same educational environment somehow constitutes equity. Nothing is further from the truth. One-size-fits-all in reality only fits a few. As the above testimony vividly demonstrates, putting students with severe special needs into conventional classrooms with teaching staff not trained to deal with their healthcare issues is harmful to the student, to the teacher, to the other students in the building, and to the system as a whole.

Students — today more than ever — need the ability to find the kind of educational environment that best suits their learning and their emotional needs. Parents in Vermont’s school choice tuitioning towns are able to choose from between many different types of educational environments, such as Waldorf, Montessori, traditional, large, small, academic focused, art focused, special needs specific, college fast-track, or a state-run public school if that’s what’s best. While not every school is right for every kid, the choice system does a far better job of making sure there is a right school for every kid — and that every kid has a more equitable opportunity to attend that school that is most right for him or her. This system is working.

Our public school system is failing. Test scores are dropping. Students are increasingly not well. Qualified teachers are leaving the system and new ones are not coming in. Costs are exploding without positive results. It’s time for a major re-thinking of how we, the public, educate the next generation of children.

So, what do our elected lawmakers want to do? With S.66 (“An act relating to the provision of State-funded education in districts that do not maintain an elementary or high school”) they seek to dismantle school choice in Vermont where it exists and obliterate the independent schools that support that system. And with S.56 (“An act relating to child care and early childhood education”) they want to expand the dysfunctional system by another grade, exposing 4-year-olds to the daily traumas of understaffed classrooms being torn apart by classmates who need and deserve to be somewhere else getting the help they need.

Predictions on how this will work out?

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Image courtesy of Burr and Burton Academy

5 thoughts on “Roper: Partisan legislators are going after the wrong schools


    I used to think I was pretty much just a regular person, but I was born white, into a two-parent household which now, whether I like it or not, makes me privileged, a racist, and responsible for slavery.

    I am a fiscal and moral conservative, which by today’s standards, makes me a fascist because I plan, budget, and support myself.

    I went to school for 19 years and have always held a job and played by the rules and paid my taxes. But I now find out that I am not here because I earned it, but because I was “advantaged”.

    I am heterosexual, which according to gay folks, now makes me a homophobic.

    I am not a Muslim, which now labels me as an infidel.

    I am older than 70, making me a useless dinosaur who doesn’t understand Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat.

    I think, and I reason, and I doubt most of what the ‘mainstream’ media tells me, which makes me a Right-wing conspiracy nut.

    I am proud of my heritage and our inclusive culture, making me a xenophobe.

    I believe in hard work, fair play, and fair reward according to each individual’s merits, which today makes me an anti-socialist.

    I believe our system guarantees freedom of effort not freedom of outcome or subsidies which must make me a borderline sociopath.

    I believe in the defense and protection of my nation for and by all citizens, now making me a militant.

    I am proud of our flag, what it stands for, and the many who died to let it fly, so I stand during our National Anthem – so I must be a radical.

    Funny – it all took place after this fellow from Hawaii took over the White House.

    If all this nonsense wasn’t enough to deal with, now I don’t even know which toilet to use!


  2. Over bureaucratic government created a housing crisis, homeless crisis, addiction crisis, crime crisis, border crisis and the list goes on. Is it any wonder the DEI curriculum focused government schools have created an academic proficiency/youth mental health crisis? And who is always there to alleviate the crisis?…..more big government. At the very least they could eliminate the changes that have been made to public education in the past 30 years and go back to the public education model of the 90’s. It certainly worked better. After what the government has done to schools and frankly the country as of recently they have proven degradation of our society is the goal. If your kids are still in the public education system, get them out…NOW! If you can’t, get your butt in the school.

  3. Forgot to mention. Great reporting, Rob.
    Why has this not been reported before it reached such a severe crisis stage?

  4. I wonder which students cause the greatest disturbances in schools. Probably no teacher, superintendent or administrator would ever reveal the truth about that.
    Communities like Winooski and Burlington are so over-burdened with refugee students (something like 60ish or more languages are spoken in Burlington’s schools) that I wonder, given the trauma they have lived through and years in refugee camps, if they act out more than local students. And how can the trauma their parents have lived through, who can’t speak the language and miss their homeland and families not be passed onto their children.
    OR, is it more or less all children?
    Children cannot learn in such dysfunctional environments.
    The public is not being given the info we need about public schools. It’s no wonder that increasingly parents want vouchers to send their children to private schools. Is immigration really the issue for them?
    Whatever, for years now American children are being denied the education they would have received before the explosion of refugees arrived.
    Our cities and schools are over populated.

  5. In reality they want to get rid of independent schools who have a much higher rate of student learning then the nea indoctrination centers.
    This will make the failure public education not seem so bad. All parents and would be parents need to shut this attempt to dilute your choices for educating your children. Remember the whole point of public ed is to dumb down the children to the lowest denominator so no ones feelings get hurt. That’s not education but social engineering.

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