This is the Jan. 15, 2022, update from the Vermont Independent Schools Association.
Special Ed Requirement May be Postponed, Again
The requirement that special education services be provided at all approved independent schools accepting public funds may be postponed once again. When originally enacted in Act 173 of 2018, the requirement was to take effect in 2021. Implementation difficulties in the AOE, followed by the COVID pandemic, caused postponement to July 1, 2023. Now, with disruptive pandemic effects still widely experienced, further postponement is under serious consideration by the House Education Committee.
Education Secretary Dan French told the Committee Wednesday he will make a formal delay recom-mendation early next month. He said two factors were under consideration: the agency’s plans to place “Education Support Teams” in districts to determine students’ academic and socio-emotional needs, and understanding the interrelationship between the Act 173 census block grant plan and the funding impli-cations of possible legislative action on the pupil weighting study.
Committee chair Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) said a bill to enact a delay is being drafted. Represen-tatives of several public education stakeholder groups said they will take a position next week. VISA’s position likely will be a repeat of its position on the previous delay: the public and independent school changes should be introduced in the coordinated manner envisioned in the original bill.
Secretary Says School Day Waivers Will Be Granted “Generously”
In a note to the House Education Committee this week, Education Secretary Dan French said “I intend to grant waivers generously for the current school year…” He said this is a response to recent and anticipated school closures due to staff shortages and other COVID disruptions.
Normally, schools must provide 175 days of student attendance per year (16 V.S.A. § 1071). The State Board of Education has authority to grant waivers. The Board has authorized the Secretary to exercise that power on its behalf.
VISA Testifies on Religious School Tuition Bill
A bill to clarify and standardize religious school tuitioning practices is consistent with the non- discriminatory enrollment position recently affirmed by the VISA Executive Committee. Executive Director Mill Moore made that point in testimony Thursday to the Senate Education Committee.
Though the committee appears to have concluded that tuition bans are off the table, it now is focused on S.219, a bill that would clarify and standardize religious school tuitioning practices. The bill has three objectives: ensure compliance with the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions, prohibit tuitioning to any school not in compliance with federal and State antidiscrimination laws, and clarify dual enrollment eligibility for religious school students.
In his testimony, Moore said the Constitutional requirements are clear as are the nondiscrimination statutes and practices. He added his view that the dual enrollment program should not be considered a church/state issue and that its entanglement in the religious tuition controversies has harmed students.
Proposed Bill Would Tighten Employer Discrimination Protections
Laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, education, public accommodations, and housing would be tightened by a bill introduced to the House General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee this week. H.329 would provide that harassment need not be severe and pervasive to constitute unlawful discrim-ination and would establish a uniform six-year statute of limitations for claims of discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing.
The bill also proposes to amend the law prohibiting employment discrimination to provide that an employee need not pursue an internal grievance process prior to filing a claim and shall not be required to demonstrate that a comparable employee was treated differently to prove that discrimination occurred.
Microbusiness Grant Applications Sought
A direct grant program offering up to $5000 to businesses with five or fewer employees is now accepting applications. The EMBRACE program is administered by the Vermont Community Action Partnership.
Increased Unemployment Insurance Benefits and Costs Considered
Interest in increasing weekly unemployment benefits by raising the minimum and maximum amount a recipient can collect has been sparked among some members of the House Ways & Means Committee following consideration of a recent report from the Unemployment Insurance Study Committee. An effort to institute a surcharge for a separate fund to pay for extra benefits for recipients, administrative costs, or system modernization also is being considered. In response, the Vermont Chamber of Com-merce says increasing benefits could draw down UI trust funds at an unsustainable rate.
Increasing the weekly UI taxable wage base as the labor shortage continues will likely negatively impact business recovery the Chamber added. Additionally, the Department of Labor is constrained by its 1970s-era mainframe computer system. IT modernization must be a priority before implementing any UI policy changes.