Editor’s note: This is the Dec. 22, 2022, update by the Vermont Independent Schools Association.
Executive Committee Adopts Policy Statement
Anticipating political struggles relating to discrimination and religious school tuitioning, the VISA Executive Committee recently adopted this statement:
VISA stands against discrimination against students, faculty and staff in all schools. VISA supported the nondiscrimination policy in bill S.219 passed by the Vermont Senate in the 2022 legislative session and will continue to support that bill’s goals.
VISA supports Vermont’s current educational system and the mosaic of educational opportunities independent schools offer to Vermont students. VISA will oppose pro- posals to reduce educational opportunities. Independent schools have a long-standing and important role in Vermont’s educational landscape. That role includes providing education to students from districts without full preK-12 public school grade coverage, therapeutic special education schools and schools that provide unique educational opportunities to Vermont students.
VISA’s Lobbyists Anticipate Legislative Threats to Independent Schools
Legislator reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing public funds to go to religious schools is very likely to trigger damaging proposals in the coming 2023 legislative session.
Indications picked up by VISA lobbyists Patti Komline and Gabrielle Malina include the likelihood of a new nondiscrimination bill sponsored by Senate Education Committee chair Brian Campion (D-Bennington). VISA supported a similar bill from Senate Ed in the 2022 session. Though that bill passed the Senate it was not considered in the House.
Also believed likely in 2023 is a proposal to shut down tuitioning, either to all independent schools or exempting only the four historic academies. Shutting down tuition to all independents is the only clearly legal way to prevent public tuition funds from reaching religious schools. A carve-out for the four historic academies would have to be very ingeniously drafted if it is to prevent funds from reaching religious schools and survive challenges to its legality. In either case, the legislature must anticipate extraordinary public push-back from affected communities as well as from VISA and the independent schools community.
Various designation schemes also have been discussed. “Designation” is a provision in 16 V.S.A. § 166 allowing a school choice district to offer exclusive contracts to between one and three schools to accept all the district’s high school students. Receiving schools, whether public or independent are free to accept or refuse such offers. Designation eliminates school choice and if it excludes religious schools in instances where an otherwise eligible religious school is nearby it may face a legal challenge.
EQS Proposed to be Applied to Approved Independent Schools
A proposal to make the State Board of Education’s Education Quality Standards (EQS) applicable to approved independent schools is currently being evaluated by an SBE Subcommittee. The proposal originated with the Vermont Superintendents Association and was made to the Ethnic & Social Equity Standards Working Group, otherwise known as the “Act 1 Group” because it was established by Act 1 of the 2021 legislative session.
The Act 1 Group’s task is to “review standards for student performance adopted by the State Board of Education … and recommend to the State Board updates and additional standards to recognize fully the history, contributions, and perspectives of ethnic groups and social groups.”
The Group made several recommendations for revisions and additions to the EQS, including recommending the requirement that the standards be made applicable to approved independent schools. As a statutory member, VISA participated in and supported the Group’s work to enhance equity, inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity in schools. However, the group adopted the EQS requirement for independent schools despite VISA’s strenuous objections.
VISA then communicated with the SBE’s subcommittee, making three points: (1) The Ed Board appears not to have legal authority to apply EQS to independent schools. (2) Explicit standards protecting the rights of all students were added to the 2200 Series rules for independent schools by the Ed Board itself, prior to the rule approval earlier this year. (3) The State Board included a clear statement of purpose recognizing a statutory requirement that the EQS are mandatory only for public schools while independ- ent schools may voluntarily conform to the standards.
The lack of legal authority claim appears to have resonated. The Board usually relies on the AOE’s General Counsel for legal advice, but in this situation the AOE chosen not to express an opinion, likely because of a conflict of interest. This has forced the SBE to hire outside legal counsel to evaluate the legal authority claim. No opinion has yet been provided.
The decision to hire outside counsel has stimulated conversation among Board members that the Board should always have its own counsel, instead of relying on the AOE. For several years VISA has urged the Board to stop relying on the AOE due to the clear appearance of a conflict of interest, particularly with respect to independent school rulemaking and other similar issues.
AOE School Approval Backlog Remains Large
The backlog of approved independent school reapproval applications remains large. Thirty-six schools continue to await any AOE action after having gone past their five-year renewal date. Another 22 either have received AOE evaluation reports or will do so before April of 2023. (Schools may continue to operate under their most recent approval if the AOE and Ed Board are unable to act before the stan- dard five-year approval expires.)
The backlog figures were reported at the December 21 State Board of Education meeting, during which some board members voiced concerns that “the current approval process is failing.” The Board heard complaints from two initial approval applicants whose applications have gone on overlong. The complaints addressed very slow agency responses and poor communication from the agency to the schools.
VISA Officers Elected at Annual Meeting
VISA President Drew Gradinger and Treasurer Tamara Mount were re-elected to new one-year terms as VISA officers during the VISA annual meeting conducted as a part of a recent series of school head conferences.
The Executive Committee also established a Legislative Affairs Subcommittee which will follow legislative developments closely. The committee is chaired by VISA President Drew Gradinger (Kindle Farm School, Newfane) and also includes Jennifer Zaccara (Vermont Academy, Saxtons River) and Mark Tashjian (Burr & Burton Academy, Manchester).
The full committee membership is published on the VISA web site: vtindependentschools.org. VISA policy statements also are published on the web site.
State Special Ed Director Leaves AOE for Vermont Family Network
The AOE’s State Special Education Director Jacqui Kelleher has left the agency to become the Executive Director of the Vermont Family Network. The announcement came in a Vermont Business Magazine story. Kelleher joined the AOE in 2019. The AOE’s Chris Kane has been appointed the acting State Special Education Director.
The Vermont Family Network is a statewide non-profit dedicated to supporting all Vermont children, youth, and families, especially those with disabilities or special health needs.
Hildene’s Lincoln Essay Competition 2023 for Vermont Eighth Graders
Encouraging civil civic discourse, especially around difficult subjects, is a key part of Hildene’s mission. For this year’s prompt, Vermont eighth graders are asked to consider the delicate topic of book banning. First-place winners receive $500, second place $400, third place $300 and up to four honorable mentions of $200 each. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 12, 2023. Please consult the 2023 Hildene Lincoln Essay Competition for Vermont Eighth Graders to see the prompt and find a complete application packet. Contact: Stephanie Moffett-Hynds at firstname.lastname@example.org or (802) 367-7960.