Representative Conlon spoke for the bill on on the House Floor Wednesday on behalf of the House Education Committee. He called it a “long and thoughtful bill drafting process” that focused on “core values that should be attached to every dollar spent on public education.” He voiced concern that the town tuitioning program had “strayed” from its original purpose and that it was hard to imagine that the founders of the system intended their dollars to go across oceans. This was the justification for the 25-mile radius in his mind.
One of the key portions of the bill is about reporting. “Once students leave, [sending districts] do not have a systematic way to receive information” he said. The sending district is ultimately responsible for those students, and superintendents want to know how their students are doing.
The bill also codifies existing state rules into statute, requiring that independent schools have policies and procedures to comply with the Fair Employment Practices Act and the Public Accommodations Act. Conlon described this as “foundational to the non-discrimination of protected classes.” Even though these protections are currently in rule, putting them in statute “makes it clear that it is the intention of the legislature.”
“We expect our publicly-funded students to face no discrimination in their admittance, either in a public school or an approved independent school,” he stated. The current rules do not protect admissions decisions made behind closed doors that rely upon the student’s personality and fit with the culture of the school. “These subjective judgements are allowed now, and will still be allowed after the rules developed under Act 173 take full effect.” The bill seeks to limit such subjective decision making.
NOTE: While limiting the potential for discrimination is vitally important, this change in the admissions process is potentially highly problematic for specialty schools, like our ski academies, and could restrict a student’s ability to interview each school they are interested in possibly attending.
Approved schools must submit all results to the Agency of Education (AOE) and also limit public tuition amounts to less than or equal to what private-pay students are charged. This is “basic taxpayer protection,” Conlon explained. AOE will also be asked to create a new position as a resource for publicly tuitioning families.
Finally, the bill also places a moratorium on the approval of new independent schools eligible to receive public tuition. “We are in a period of dropping enrollment in our public schools in Vermont due to demographic changes,” he noted. “We have students driving past public schools to get to their independent schools… it is time to hit the pause button on this.”
Conlon closed by saying that “a publicly funded student should be educated, not vetted. Not excluded, not told they are not the right fit.”
There was a question about the process for holding independent schools in compliance with the rules. Conlon explained that the bill follows the current process through the State board of Education. Concerns followed about removing the private right of action because of relying on a complaint-driven process.
Representative Bos-Lun commented that “one size does not fit all” and that “the provisions of this bill would be extremely challenging and potentially crippling” for small independent schools. She pointed to the Compass School as being able to serve a very diverse student population .
Representative Beck added that the complaint process is the same enforcement mechanism for public schools. He agreed with Bos-Lun that there were things he liked in the bill but there were things he could not support. He pointed to one issue where this puts admissions criteria on independent schools, it does not apply the same criteria equally to public schools.
Conlon responded that while state statute is not clear, the practice on the ground is that schools treat tuitioning students as if they were from their own district. However, due to a lack of clarity, this is something the Committee has already begun work on.
Representative Donahue agreed that that it was inappropriate for schools to bar students, but wondered if this also prohibited a family or student from requesting a visit or interview. Conlon did not think so but was not confident.
Representative Christie offered an amendment that would add a new section to the Public Accommodations Act (PAA) that would add public schools, independent schools, career and technical educational centers, and other education providers that are a public benefit to the definition of covered institutions. The purpose would be to “add clarity and definition,” he noted. Conlon shared that the House Education Committee found the amendment favorable.
Donahue questioned whether the new definition was very expansive. She worried that an independent school not accepting public dollars may be caught up in this new liability. Conlon clarified that the testimony they received from Legislative Counsel indicated that whether the PAA applied was highly situational and would have to be worked out by a court.
Representative Sims raised concerns that, under the bill, “students could travel East, West, South, but not North.” She expressed disappointment that the Committee did not consider access to Canadian schools along the border.
Several members spoke in favor of the bill, with comments like “[students should] to choose where they want to attend school, without fear of being denied or discriminated against.” And “we should be striving to build a single public education system that attracts people to our state.”
One of the members from Winooski asked if it was an effective way to maintain compliance to require “self-reporting of their own misconduct,” from schools. Conlon responded that they did not ask witnesses if this was effective. However, they have already seen this result in schools not receiving approval if they are unwilling to sign attestations of non-discrimination. He also pointed back to the advocate position that is to be created at the AOE. Some members were still uncomfortable with the complaint-driven process.
Sibilia stated that they have heard the justification of this bill was the “Carson v. Makin” decision and the conflict that decision creates with the compelled support clause in the Vermont Constitution. Conlon clarified that the bill “does not limit the state’s ability to an approved independent school that meets the criteria provided,” therefore it does not resolve the conflict between the US Supreme Court decision and the state constitution.
Sibilia pushed further, asking if “as a result of the Carson v. Makin decision have there been any changes in Vermont about what public education dollars can be spent on?” Conlon stated that the AOE issued guidance that districts should not discriminate against schools who receive tuition based on the school’s religious status. Sibilia thanked him but stated that she was “really conflicted about how to vote.” She feels like the Committee’s work is “good and important but it does not resolve the issue.”
Representative Bongartz pointed out that 4% of Vermont’s students are publicly tuitioned and that two-thirds of those attend the historic academies. A number of schools focus specifically on students who are LGBTQ or have had adverse experiences. “To the extant that there is discrimination, we are just as opposed as anybody else in Vermont,” he argued.
The bill passed on a voice vote.
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