Oversight Independent of Schools (H.483) - April 19, 2023

Chairman Campion welcomed Jay Badams (Superintendent, Norwich/Hanover Interstate School District ) to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, saying they wanted to know about the “whether there is ever any admissions process in our public schools.” He described H.483 as asking for “a kind of open enrollment where public dollars follow kids to whatever school they want.” He added that he thinks that is happening now in a lot of schools.

Badams thanked the Committee for a “civil process,” whereas nationwide it is a conversation “looking more and more like combat.” In his district, he noted, “whether you call it admissions or enrollment process it is really quite simple” and all residents are entitled to admission. His only restricted category is an officially “expelled” student. They are not obligated under either state law to accept enrollment. Age restrictions are in play, however.

Senator Hashim asked how they learned about expulsions. Badams mentioned an “exchange of records” that occurs, and expulsions are “fairly well documented there.” He noted that the laws of both states (VT and NH) require them to develop policies to allow them to enroll out-of-district students. Non-resident students are legally allowed to pay tuition directly. Local policies often delegate authority and discretion to accept non-resident students to the Superintendent. However, that discretion is tempered by all applicable Federal and State non-discrimination laws. 

Badams saw no likelihood of that happening, noting that they have an excess capacity of 200 students. He added that there is a “financial incentive” of $22K per student so there is an economic incentive to “accept at our capacity.”

Senator Weeks asked if they receive academic records from sending districts. Badams confirmed that they did, but added that there is a residency requirement and sign-off for tuition payments, but no academic or test score requirement.

Legislative Counsel joined the Committee next to provide a side-by-side comparison for the Committee per the request of Campion. The testimony focused on how H.483 compares to existing law, Act 173, and State Board of Education 2200 series rules. For our purposes, we will focus on things that are changing from existing rules or laws.

These changes include:

  • The requirement for schools to provide the local education agencies (LEAs) with an attendance report.
  • The requirement for schools to provide LEAs with reports of academic progress of students.
  • A reporting requirement for schools to provide any enrollment changes to the LEA within a certain time period.
  • Prohibits an admissions process. This is not addressed by existing statute, but the 2200 series does address this somewhat. However, the rules do not prohibit certain activities, they just require that schools’ enrollment practices are non-discriminatory and that they be maintained publicly.
    • This was a point of discussion for the Committee.
    • Weeks pushed back on the admissions requirement, saying that “what we are boiling this down to is that not all schools can accept all students.” What he was alluding to was that it’s not reasonable to expect that small independent schools could meet all the same criteria as public schools. Further, he implied that independent schools are providing a public service because they are filling education deserts.
    • Campion asked whether the admissions language was proposed by the Equity Alliance; the members in the room declined to comment and said that the Committee should hear from the House as this was their bill.
  • The bill prohibits independent schools from charging publicly tuitioned students more than their private-pay students. Additionally, schools may not charge any other application or academic fees.
    • Weeks pointed out that fees were common outside of public schools as a way to categorize education costs. He believed the likely outcome of that language is that fees would be lumped into tuition.
    • NOTE: That might be prohibited in the bill if it increased tuition for public students above the rate for private-pay students.
    • Campion asked about fees for field trips. Legislative counsel didn’t have a clear answer for that.
    • Additionally, the language required an attestation from the head of school that public tuition was not subsidizing private-pay students.
  • The bill prohibits students from taking their public tuition to a school further than 25 miles from the Vermont border.

Upon completion of the walk-through of the side-by-side, Campion commented that “most of this is definitely in the 2200 series, Act 173, and some Title 16.” He turned to the VT-NEA representative in the room and asked him “what’s the best way to describe this will help kids?” Colin Robinson (Political Director, VT-NEA) responded that, ultimately, what they were talking about was public education dollars and “as a basic construct this is putting some basic guardrails and standards around public taxpayer dollars.” Campion pushed further, asking him “how does that answer my question?” Robinson admitted that he didn’t think the purpose of the bill was to improve education.

Campion noted that most of the discrimination issues “seem to be coming from public schools.”

Neil Odell testified next regarding spending pressures that the public tuitioning program supposedly puts on education spending. After walking the Committee through how the property tax funding system works, he got to his main thesis, which was Vermont’s public tuitioning program puts more pressure on taxpayers.

NOTE: Vermont’s public school spending averages out to $23,299 whereas the (default) average statewide tuition for independent schools is $17,278.

He offered a hypothetical scenario where a public school was educating students at $15k each and a new independent school became available offering the same tuition amount. If the public school lost a certain number of students to this new competitor, they would be faced with either making budgetary cuts to compensate for the lost revenue, or maintaining the current funding with a higher tax rate. If they chose the latter (which Odell assumed they would), this would result in an overall increase in education spending and in higher tax rates.

He also pointed to another hypothetical scenario that districts operating at certain grade levels might run into. In his hypothetical, increases in tuition amounts might put additional budgetary pressure on the grades that the district does operate.

NOTE: This dynamic might also exist for middle and elementary school districts underneath a union high school.

Senator Gulick asked if he could “unpack” this point a bit more. She asked if “this is insinuating that elementary schools are getting less than they should be getting.” Odell didn’t want to comment on whether they were “getting less than they should be getting,” but he did say that it “looks like there is spending disparity” between the grade levels “in an attempt to compensate for higher spending at the secondary level.”

He also argued that “selective enrollment practices” have also led to a larger percentage of students that have additional costs ending up in public schools versus independent ones.

NOTE: If this is indeed happening, it is already addressed by the updated 2200 series rules.


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