The House Education Committee returned Wednesday morning to the bill that does away with Vermont’s public tuitioning system. Chairman Conlon opened the meeting, indicating that this would not likely be taken up again before the town meeting break. However, on Friday they will take another look at their committee bill on this topic.
Jeanne Collins, a retired Superintendent, who had served most of per professional life in Vermont, spoke to the Committee. She supervised both districts that offered public tuition and those that did not. She also oversaw the rollout of the magnet school system in Burlington.
She wanted to talk to the Committee about her experience with a variety of different school operating models. After recounting her accolades, she shared that she “truly believes that public schools are the cornerstone of democracy in our country.” Public education is designed to serve every student, she believes.
She reminded the Committee that Amanda Brigham of Whiting brought a lawsuit that lead to the Brigham Decision and At 60, producing “the most equitable school funding system in the country.” Whiting is in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, where she last served. She is proud to have worked in the system that put forward these values.
She claimed that H.258 “is fundamentally about support for Vermont’s public education system and it’s ability to serve all students with rich and equitable opportunities within a transparent and accountable funding system.”
She jumped into responding to testimony from “publicly funding private school students” about the benefits they felt they had received from moving from a public school where they had adverse experiences with their peers. Collins affirmed that the “stories and perspectives of these students are legitimate.” However, she did not agree that a move to a private school is the only way to address issues that occur in public schools. She added that bullying and harassment do not only occur in public schools and pointed to Vermont’s (infrequently used) public high school choice system as a solution for this.
Collins wanted to focus on two primary arguments for H.258: economics and equity. She started with economics, saying that the Vermont’s demographic shift is putting strain on the financial system, saying that the dual system is “at the taxpayer’s expense.” She admitted that she did not have the financial information available at the time of her testimony but argued that Agency of Education had the data on the cost of private school tuition. She suggested that the Committee could request those numbers.
She gave the example of the Barstow School District, which last year had an unusually high number of students tuition out (about 10% went to independent schools). They operate pre-k through 8th grade and tuition for high school. In order to contain cost, the board had to reduce some programming for the grades they did operate.
Moving on to equity, she again pointed to the Barstow school district. The school board was in the process of developing an equity policy when they realized that they “were not meeting those standards themselves” for tuitioning students. One issue she pointed to is potential additional fees applied by some private schools. Transportation is another problem she pointed to.
Schools who cannot, or will not, offer special education services or support LGBTQ students are part of the problem she is describing here. An example she offered a headline from this past week where Mid Vermont Christian School refused to play a basketball game against a team that had a transgender student.
Conlon asked her to repeat the issues that arise with hybrid systems where some grades are tuitioned and others are not. Collins responded that because of the collective funding of education under Act 60, taxpayers around the state were funding those tuition dollars that were leaving the public education system.
Conlon asked about her experience as the head of the Local Education Agency (LEA), which is the entity responsible for the student under the No Child Left Behind Act, and how good she felt the communication and information Collins received when students were attending another school. She shared that neither public or private schools share much data back unless they are on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Representative Williams asked if by taking away choice from parents, we were also limiting equity. Collins paused and then stated that “if all schools followed Vermont’s anti-discrimination laws and provided services so that their doors were open all students… then you would be providing equity.” Williams pushed further, asking if Act 173 was the solution for that. There was some back and forth on this topic and confusion around what the requirements for independent schools is under that legislation.
NOTE: The 2200 rule series going into effect in July DOES do this. Requiring that all independent schools adhere to anti-discrimination standards. Recently, the school cited by Collins as a problem as well as another school who refused to attest their adherence to these standards had their applications rejected by the State Board of Education for this reason.
Representative Brady shared that she is concerned about “public school deserts” around the state, but also some of the issues in Vermont’s education system as a whole. She asked Collins if we see some ranking and sorting among students choosing independent schools versus public schools. Collins didn’t speak to this directly but talked about her experience in Burlington where the poverty levels in each middle school varied greatly. They were able to dramatically change the demographics and the Barnes & Wheeler school when they turned it into a magnet school. It wasn’t so much that students from other neighborhoods were coming there, it was driven primarily by students returning from private schools.