VISA update: New 2200 Series rules fully approved for oversight of independent schools

Editor’s note: This is the April 23, 2022, update by the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

By a unanimous Thursday morning vote, the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules accepted the new 2200 Series State Board of Education rules for oversight and approval of independent schools. This brings to an end a very lengthy process beginning with the passage of new independent school requirements in Act 173 in the 2018 legislative session.

The Agency of Education has said it soon will send an information bulletin to all approved independent schools. Schools with approval renewal applications now pending in the agency’s backlog may be asked to sign a document attesting to compliance with new health and safety and nondiscrimination require-ments in the newly adopted rules.

VISA soon will announce a series of webinars to support school planning for and implementation of the new rules, with particular emphasis on the requirement that schools accepting public funds must be pre-pared to enroll and support special education students beginning next year.

Independent School Approval Backlog May Continue for Years

An understaffed Agency of Education may need years to process the extraordinary backlog of independent school reapproval applications now pending at the Agency. That was the report of State Board of Education member Tom Lovett to the full board at its April 19 meeting. Lovett chairs a SBE sub-committee monitoring the AOE’s plans and progress.

The school reapproval backlog was accumulated during the COVID pandemic which prevented AOE staff from visiting schools to conduct school reviews as required by a five-year renewal statute. The backlog is expected to rise to more than 50 schools by the middle of this year. “We won’t have the backlog cleared until maybe February of 2024,” Lovett said, “and that’s not counting the group that expires in 2023. It’ll be a long road out.”

Lovett said four kindergartens now up for reapproval likely will not need in-person AOE visits because the schools have approvals from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Sharon Academy EQS Approval Stirs Fears of Cost Hikes

The Sharon Academy (TSA) recently received AOE approval to be exempted from the usual Average Announced Tuition cap on public tuition support payments from sending school districts. That in turn has stirred concern about cost increases in the LEA which sends most of TSA’s students, reported recently in a VT Digger article. And, others are worried the TSA move may spark a wave of such changes among other independent schools.

The TSA exemption from the tuition cap is a consequence of the school becoming designated as conforming to the Ed Board’s Education Quality Standards (EQS) embodied in its 2000 Series rules. The EQS were adopted a few years ago with the aim of implementing proficiency-based learning, flexible pathways and personalized learning plans in the public school system. Under state law, an independent school meeting EQS is exempted from the AAT requirement.

TSA is the second approved independent to meet the EQS requirements. The first was Thetford Academy, which has met the standards from their beginning and also met the previous standards—the School Quality Standards—that the EQS superseded.

Meeting the EQS may be burdensome or impossible for many independent schools. The most significant EQS requirement is that teachers and administrators must be licensed and appropriately endorsed. Additionally, the school must meet Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) standards and must adhere to the Vermont Approved Curriculum Standards.

A VISA ad hoc committee has been named to study the EQS situation and recommend a policy response to the VISA Executive Committee.

ACLU Recommends More Anti-Discrimination Legislation

Signaling that antidiscrimination advocacy groups will seek further legislative action in the 2023-24 legislative session, the Vermont ACLU filed additional S.219 testimony with the House Education Committee this week. S.219, passed by the Senate as a nondiscrimination and religious school tuitioning measure, is in the House Education Committee’s hands. Committee chair Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) has said the bill will not be taken up in the remaining few weeks of this legislative session.

ACLU Staff Attorney Harrison Stark wrote “we support any and all reforms that bolster the Vermont Public Accommodations Act (VPAA), 9 V.S.A. § 4502 in the educational context, and therefore see any mechanism—statutory or regulatory— requiring schools receiving public tuition to confirm that they will comply with existing legal obligations as common-sense—and hopefully uncontroversial. But we want to be clear that significantly more can—and must—be done to protect Vermont’s students from discrimination. Regardless of how the Committee proceeds on S.219 or the Series 2200 Rules in the coming days and weeks, we therefore highly encourage the General Assembly to return to this issue with a wider lens next session.”

Stark said “numerous schools—both public and independent—remain toxic and exclusionary environments for many students,” adding “even though discrimination is technically illegal, myriad Vermont students remain excluded from the state’s promise of equal educational opportunity, simply for being who they are.” In a subsequent conversation with VISA Executive Director Mill Moore Stark said the many reports reaching the ACLU are unsubstantiated either by the ACLU or other advocacy groups.

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