Oversight of Independent Schools (H.483) - April 21, 2023

On Friday, Oliver Olsen (Former Chair, State Board of Education) joined the Senate Education Committee to speak on H.483 as a parent, former legislator, and community member from Southern Vermont. During his tenure, he oversaw the “significant effort” of updating the rules governing the approval of independent schools.

He grew up in a non-operating school district, attended both public and independent schools, and now is a parent of three children. One of them is in a public school, one in an independent school, and one has “extreme special education needs” who is being served in a therapeutic school.

The voters in the community he lives in passed a resolution in support of the current system, which affirmed the community's commitment to non-discrimination, and made it clear that they were opposed to the kinds of changes that have been discussed over the past several months in the legislature.

He thinks the voices of parents and students have been missing from a lot of the conversation, and he thinks the education system that we have “works really well together to serve the needs of all students.”

As the chair of the State Board of Education (SBE) he couldn’t recall “a single instance” where he had someone “reaching out to [complain] about an independent school.” He added that he thinks this is because if there is a problem “students can leave and go somewhere else…you have a choice.”

Moving back to the 2200 series rules, he shared that the SBE had taken “a firm position against discrimination” by requiring adherence to the Public Accommodations Act or other discriminatory practices and baking that into their approval process.

He took the opportunity to push back on Neil Odell’s testimony from the previous day. His first contention was that independent schools typically charge a lower tuition rate than the statewide public average because they're based off of the estimate, rather than the actual tuition numbers.

One of Odell’s slides looked at the amount of money being spent on tuition to public schools and independent schools. The number for independent schools was overstated by close to two million dollars because some therapeutic schools were included in that number.

In some of the other spending comparisons, “the data set here was altered,” he claimed and an “unweighted average was used to calculate” some of these numbers. Olsen had done some of his own calculations using weighted averages and the numbers came out quite different. He argued that the unweighted averages “distorts the data” and that the Agency of Education actually excludes some of these tiny schools from their statewide number for this reason.

NOTE: The use of weighted averages is important here because some very small schools with a high cost per student can drag the average up significantly unless the average is weighted to account for this. This is what Olsen is getting at.

Senator Weeks asked him about the prohibition on fees and the “25-mile exclusion.” Olsen didn't have a strong opinion on the prohibition on fees, because “tuition fees are fungible,” in his opinion. You could put a prohibition on them and they could just increase the tuition.

NOTE: Except that the bill prohibits schools from charging a higher tuition for publicly-funded students, so this means that fees would have to be rolled into tuition for ALL students, raising the cost for private-pay students as well.

Olsen wasn’t sure what the problem was that this provision was trying to address. He didn’t live in a border community but noted that folks that did live near the border were justifiably concerned. He added that he didn’t think this provision really was addressing the concern of students “going to Switzerland.”

Chairman Campion asked Olsen what he thought the bill should be addressing. Olsen thought that Act 173 and the 2200 rules “take care of some of the problems,” but thought that “everybody should expect some bumpiness” as schools come up to speed on these new 2200 series rules. He noted that there is “a lot of change that hasn’t even taken effect” and would prefer to “let things settle a little bit.”

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