Senate Education Committee approves bill to reform special education funding

Michael Bielawski/TNR

SPECIAL ED FUNDING CONUNDRUM: Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, told the Senate Education Committee this week that S.229 will cause trouble for public school financing of special education in independent schools.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Last week the House Education Committee heard its share of concerns about the logistical and economic challenges of reworking funding formulas for special education, and this week the Senate Education Committee got its own testimony of similar flavor.

Things concluded Wednesday as the Senate committee approved H.897 by a 4-1 vote, with Sen. Carolyn Whitney Branagan, R-Franklin, the lone no vote.

The intent of H.897 is to disperse special education money more broadly in a block grant based on total student count that incentivizes cost containment and offers more flexibility on expenditures. The bill largely derives from the 2016 Picus Report, which indicated that Vermont over-identifies special education disorders and is spending $140 million more than necessary.

Branagan told True North the most significant recent change to the bill was the creation of a study group to examine the impact of an “extraordinary cost” special education student attending an independent school. These are students who receive above $60,000 per year.

The findings of this group are due next legislative session.

“This solution should have been given more thought,” she said. “I think it’s irresponsible to pass a bill without understanding how all these kid’s needs are going to be paid for.”

Another important bill pertaining to special education funding, S.229, is making its way through the Legislature. Specifically, S.229 relates to making special education requirements for public schools apply to independent schools as well. The bill worries independent school advocates, who say there aren’t enough employees to meet the staffing requirements, and that state and federal regulations would place significant burdens on small independent schools.

Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday that he agrees with concerns expressed in the House Education Committee regarding S.229 — especially that special education funding for independent schools could become problematic under the current proposals.

“We think that the issue that was raised by the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union’s leadership last week is very important and a legitimate issue that we’re not certain should be left to resolution in a conference committee,” Francis said.

Jackie Wilson, superintendent for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, told the House Education Committee last week that if private schools do special education services in a pay-per-service model, supervisory unions with their soon-to-be limited block-grant funds will still have to accommodate additional costs for each tuitioned student sent to an independent school.

Francis reiterated her concerns for the committee. He said if public schools “go through a massive sea-change” toward a census block model but independent schools don’t have the same processes in place, it may burden the public schools.

“I can’t say it as well as superintendent Wilson did in her testimony last week, but she talks about dramatic resource problems for the public schools if the independent schools and the public schools aren’t on the same system of practice.”

Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden and chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, reminded colleagues that the effort to expand special education requirements in independent schools seemed to start with the public education sector behind it.

“I can only surmise that they were behind it, thinking that approved independents would pick up 100 percent of the cost,” he said. “Once it became clear that there would have to be any share [in funds], I’ve noticed support has dwindled subtly from what was once declared a civil rights issue.”

He added that it may take another month to work these issues out in his committee.

“My goal all the way has been to find a ground that will not drain the public system, that will not bankrupt the independent system, but will nudge those two entities into cooperation with each other in the event that the LEA [local education agency] indicates they need to work together,” Baruth said.

On Wednesday, Campaign for Vermont Executive Director Eric LaMontagne expressed concern in an email blast to members that S.229 places excessive burden on the limited capacity of independent schools to take on additional special education requirements.

“Campaign for Vermont believes S.229 falls short of this mission by not taking into account real-world impacts of implementing these requirements within schools that are simply too small to handle it,” he wrote.

“Staffing is one of the greatest areas of concerns. Simply, the employee pool to meet the new requirements does not exist. When a student with additional needs is placed in a school, a teacher is hired by the local education agency and assigned to that student for one academic year. Beyond the initial academic year the onus is on the school to provide the staffing.”

Patti Komline, a lobbyist for the Independent Schools Association, told True North that additional burden on public school budgets is not what her clients are pushing for.

“This is not something that independent schools support,” she said. ” … They have to eat that cost within their budget.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR

8 thoughts on “Senate Education Committee approves bill to reform special education funding

  1. Looking at that group of Legislators in Montpelier, I’d say they have an sickly over weight problem and can’t care for themselves. And they want to solve school problems which they are problem promoting. Some look dumbfounded as if they didn’t know what’s going on. Our “Leaders”.

    You should view this older article to see how they get fat, mind-boggling fat cats.

    They know how to avoid the laws.

    • Matt: the most significant change in this State law is that the IEP Team (which includes parents) no longer controls the student’s program. It’s now the State Board of Ed.. Interestingly, Federal law hasn’t changed in this regard, so there’s a conflict. Hopefully someone will have the stones (financial and daring) to challenge Vermont’s monopoly. But I’m not holding my breath…

  2. Notice that the public school advocates were “all in” on forcing the independent schools having to provide a portfolio of Special Ed services when they thought those school would have to foot the bill out-of-pocket and that it would put them out of business. Now that is clear that the regional school district will have to underwrite their additional cost of a “fee for service” basis suddenly they have lost their enthusiasm ! Surprise, Surprise !

    • The School District (Local Education Agency – LEA – i.e. taxpayers) has always had the responsibility to pay SPED costs. What this bill does, however, is stipulate that the SPED programs, previously determined by the student’s IEP Team, are now controlled by the State Board of Ed. And the legislature did this because the education special interest groups duped/bribed the legislature into keeping the Federal SPED grants in the public school monopoly.

      Here’s a list of the special interest groups designated to determine where the money is spent.

      “Sec. 9. CENSUS-BASED FUNDING ADVISORY GROUP (a) Creation. There is created the Census-based Funding Advisory Group to consider and make recommendations on the implementation of a census based model of funding for students who require additional support. (b) Membership. The Advisory Group shall be composed of the following 18 members:
      (1) the Executive Director of the Vermont Superintendents Association or designee;
      (2) the Executive Director of the Vermont School Boards Association or designee;
      (3) the Executive Director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators or designee;
      (4) the Executive Director of the Vermont Principals’ Association or designee;
      (5) the Executive Director of the Vermont-National Education Association or designee;
      (6) the Executive Director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association or designee;
      (7) three representatives of the Agency of Education selected by the Secretary, one with management responsibility for special education practices, one with financial responsibility, and one with special education program responsibility;
      (8) one member selected by the Vermont Superintendents Association;
      (9) one member selected by the Vermont Principals’ Association;
      (10) two members selected by the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators; (11) one member selected by the Vermont-National Education Association who is a special education teacher;
      (12) two members selected by the Vermont Association of School Business Officials;
      (13) one member selected by the Vermont Legal Aid Disability Law Project; and
      (14) one member who is either a family member, guardian, or education surrogate of a student requiring special education services or a person who has received special education services directly, selected by the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights.”

      This with only one parent/guardian on the funding advisory group, as chosen by the VCDR – the VCDR is coalition of another dozen or so education special interest organizations….

      Do you think too many chefs will spoil this broth too?

  3. Previous commentary: April 16, 2018 at 7:45 am

    Wait until you see H.897, the legislature’s latest 55 page “… effort to free up teachers and resources to help struggling students sooner and avoid excessive red tape.”

    “… (3) The State Board of Education shall define allowable special education expenditures that shall include any expenditures required under federal law …………”

    “There is created the Census-based Funding Advisory Group to consider and make recommendations on the implementation of a census based model of funding for students who require additional support.”

    The proposed advisory group consists exclusively of dozens of Vermont education special interest groups, including your favorite, heavy weighting for the VT NEA.

    There appears to be no stopping this education juggernaut because the Vermont electorate consists of a dysfunctional and conflict-of-interest ridden majority, including politicians, appointed administrators, government employees, special interest lobbyists, social service recipients and intimidated parents.

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