Dan French (Secretary of Education) shared with the House Education Committee on Tuesday that the Agency of Education did not fully support the bill. The main reason is because they just embarked on rulemaking with the State Board of Education (SBE), which he described as “yeoman’s work… to bring forward a much-improved regulatory framework for independent schools.”
He is concerned about changing the rules before they even go into full effect. His preference would be to see the new 2200 series rules go into effect and then make adjustments as necessary.
NOTE: The rules he is referring to govern which schools can be approved to receive public tuitioning. Starting July 1 eligible schools must accept all categories of special education students through a blind admissions process and attest to anti-discrimination statements protecting both students and staff.
While he would be in favor of strengthening the non-discriminatory provisions of statute, they oppose the effort to restructure the whole system and he specifically pointed out that the Governor would not support that.
Chairman Conlon argued that “many” of the provisions in the bill where “outside the rule 2200 series.” He pointed to geographical limits and accreditation (which is true). French sees the accreditation issue as “central” to the 2200 series, saying that they are looking at that closely with the SBE now.
The border issue is new in his eyes, he would prefer to let the new regulatory scheme “settle in” before making additional changes. He continued on to say that “it’s always been problematic to develop a coherent approach to regulation when multiple variables are changing simultaneously.”
Representative Stone asked what the mechanisms are in place to make sure that the 2200 series rules are implemented. French didn’t not believe we had such a mechanism for either independent schools or public schools.
Conlon pushed further, asking what was in place to make sure that these rules were complied with. French restated that this is an approval process and that there was a subsequent complaint process that has been exercised in the past if a school is not meeting their obligations.
NOTE: The accountability mechanism for independent schools is that the SBE could revoke their eligibility status if they violate the terms of their original approval.
Representative Austin asked what would happen if an independent school didn’t meet proficiency standards. French explained that the new rules they are proposing for public school under the Education Quality Review (EQR) process. He wanted to wait until 2200 was fully implemented before they moved forward on other initiatives like trying to apply this EQR to independent schools.
Conlon pointed to some of the concerns they had heard from Local Education Agencies (LEA’s), which in Vermont are primarily Supervisory Unions, around not knowing what was happening with students after they “send them off” to an independent school. French thought this sort of reporting was better addressed through contractual agreements between the sending district and the receiving school. Conlon argued that sending districts were hesitant to use tuition as leverage for this information. French questioned how else the local district or the state would gain leverage and shared that he didn’t think there was a clean way to operationalize the changes the bill contemplated.
Representative Buss wondered where that leaves legislators if there was no follow through on either the 2200 series or the Committee bill. French, didn’t respond directly, but thought it would be an interesting conversation to look at what could be done in statute to help districts with contractual agreements (implying that could be the accountability mechanism).
French closed by saying that the state needs to understand how many independent schools are interested in moving forward under the new regulatory framework.
On Wednesday the Committee came back to this topic, hearing from Sue Ceglowski (Executive Director, Vermont School Boards Association) who shared that she was testifying on behalf of the Education Equity Alliance. She called the current situation following the Carson v. Makin decision a “defining crossroads.” She believes that there are equity and accountability gaps in Vermont’s current “parallel education systems.” An issue she pointed to was “increased pressures” from expanded access to public tuition.
She emphasized that public dollars should provide an equal educational opportunity for all families, public dollars should be transparent and accountability, and our system should treat all kids and staff equitably and without discrimination. They prefer that the Committee move forward on H.258 instead of their committee bill.
Ceglowski acknowledged that she was there to speak to the committee bill and said that they were asking for “significant revisions” to that bill. She felt that the 2025 implementation of attestations seems too long. She believes they can achieve greater equity by reducing barriers to enrollment, claiming that current enrollment practices are discriminatory.
She called for a series of languages changes including some sort of guarantee of education quality provisions in Act 1 (which is applicable to public schools and not even fully implemented yet); strengthening the language around attestations; and applying all rules, laws, and reporting requirements applicable to public schools.
Ceglowski responded to Secretary French’s comments from the previous day that very few districts have contracts in place with independent schools and those that are in place are often “lacking.” She also does not believe that using invoices as an accountability tool feasible.
Conlon clarified that there was no current default contract that the Agency of Education has instituted. Ceglowski agreed that it would take a significant amount of time for superintendents and school boards to implement this on their own.
- Annual capacity reporting and an agreement to accept all students in a non-discriminatory manner.
- Prohibit admissions testing and other traditional admissions screening.
- Prohibit any extra fees on students and their families (didn’t specify if this should only be limited to types of fees that public schools don’t charge).
- Require compliance with the Education Quality Standards.
- Reporting to the Local Education Agency (supervisory unions) regarding punitive actions and absenteeism.
- Reporting back on state assessment data (this already happens to the Agency of Education).
Representative Buss asked what the best way was to enforce anything that is put into place. Ceglowski identified the Public Accommodations Act as one of the enforcement tools (which is already applicable). She suggested amending the act to allow private right of action against schools. This would be an alternative to the State Board of Education enforcement and potential loss of eligibility for independent schools. It was suggested that the District Quality Standards (DQS) could be applied to independent schools. Conlon identified the ultimate accountability mechanism here tuition itself.
NOTE: It’s not clear how the DQS’ could be applied to independent schools, they are written specifically for public school districts which is a fundamentally different structure.
Representative Williams asked if there was anything in Act 173 that would allow for enforcement. Ceglowski hesitated but said there was enforcement (through the State Board of Education) but there is a process for arbitration or mediation to resolve issues where services could not be provided.
Conlon mentioned that the academies sent some “helpful feedback.” Their suggestion as that instead of having specific reporting requirements, rather encourage more conversations between Local Education Agencies (LEA’s) and independent schools around these topics. LEA’s are a federal designation under the No Child Left Behind legislation which in Vermont are supervisory unions.
Roy Starling (Head of School, The Riverside School) testified next. They have 120 students in grades pre-k through 8. About 60-70% are on public tuition. One in five are receive learning support services.
They have been around just over 40 years and their main building was an old farmhouse. Their philosophy is more freedom of movement for students but also more responsibility. He commented that “for generations Vermont has been working to attract young families with kids… what we have to offer is outdoor access… equally important is education access.” He sees this as a cornerstone of the Northeast Kingdom.
One of his main concerns is that an immense amount of time energy when into the 2200 series of rules. He worried that “this thoughtful process” may be disrupted by the legislature without adequate thought or care.
He also had some concerns around reporting redundancy. As head of school, he has access to the state portal but doesn’t necessarily have the ability to export and share test results externally. He was quite surprised to hear that superintendents didn’t already have access to the state portal.
He also questioned the truancy requirements because he already notifies superintendents if a student is AWOL. The current bill with a three-day reporting requirement could be problematic because of the frequency. They aggregate attendance on paper on a weekly basis. He thought this might be even more problematic for very small schools, like the East Burke School which has only 12 students.
One concern about blind admissions is that sometimes you don’t have enough time to implement a support plan and services after the learning need is disclosed. Starling highlighted his own learning disability and why it has been so important to him to build support for his students. His own needs where not well supported in the educational environment he grew up in, and he doesn’t want his kids to have that same experience.
Julie Hansen (Head of School, Thaddeus Stevens School) spoke next, saying that they had just completed their second round. Hansen, along with a number of other parents, founded the school in East Burke in the 1990’s. She shared that her school is all about equity, inclusion, and diversity. In the mold of their namesake.
She understood that the drive for this bill was out of concern for inclusion, anti-discrimination, and accountability. She believes the current mechanisms provide this accountability, pointing to accreditation as one of these mechanisms.
“One school simply cannot meet the needs of every student. One methodology cannot serve every student,” she stated, “the diversity of Vermont’s families propels the need for diversity in how we provide education.” They have seen families who send different kids to different schools (both public and independent). She shared that large schools cannot always provide the level of personal experience that some students require. Particularly now that emotional needs of students is heightened.
Under the current system (which is changing on July 1), parents with students on IEP’s were forced (by the school district) to waive their right to special education services if they were attending a school that didn’t offer them. Despite this, Hansen shared a story of a student on a “serious IEP” whose parents chose to send him to Thaddeus Stevens regardless. The parents paid the tuition in order for him to have a relatively “normal” education experience. They believed in this so much that they were willing to pay out of pocket for this.
She also pushed back on suggestions around teacher licensing. There is no study, which she is aware of, that says a licensed teacher is a better or more effective at educating students. If we want to teach every child we need to allow them to find the environments and methodologies that work for them. She worried that there was a bit of “urban-rural tension” here.
Conlon asked what percentage of students were public-pay versus private-pay. For Thaddeus Stevens, it was about 8 out of 35 students. Brady asked again if the tuition rate for public-pay and private-pay was the same. Hanson confirmed that it was.
Next up was Jennifer Zaccara (Head of School, Vermont Academy) shared that her school will be 120 years old in 2026. There are roughly around 200 students and was founded as a co-ed school which was pretty unusual in 1876. She is also on the AISNE board.
Timothy Newbold (Head of School, Village School of North Bennington) joined her for a walk through of their comments on the draft bill. They would like to see clarification around enrollment requirements, there is concern that if a student is placed in an independent school and then later on it turns out not to be a good fit there is no process currently in place to handle that. They want schools to be able to work with the LEA to find the right balance.
They very much encourage all independent schools to become accredited. They find this process rigorous and beneficial, but they wanted to clarify whether or not therapeutic schools would be required to seek accreditation.
They also think that the truancy reporting could be tricky and warrants further discussion and clear definitions within the process.
The Public Accommodations Act is already a requirement for membership in the Vermont Independent Schools Association (VISA) and they are currently in the process of collecting affirmations of compliance. They also believe that, because this is being asked of independent schools, perhaps the Agency of Education (AOE) should also require this from public schools.
They had looked at the schools receiving tuition today and they felt that the 25 mile limit on tuition was arbitrary and unhelpful. One example is Proctor Academy, which is 2 miles beyond the geographical limit. There is also concern that some Vermont schools are receiving out of state tuition and there may be some issues with reciprocity. She added that all contiguous states have anti-discrimination provisions that should be satisfactory. They recommended that they just make the language contiguous states.
In the academic progress reporting section they would like to see a reciprocal exchange of information and a clear process. Zaccara added that any of these new requirements should also be applied to public schools who receive public tuition from other districts.
They were also quite concerned about the freeze on new approvals. There was at least one school currently in progress the impacts of this are unknown. Zacarra wondered what the justification for this provision was. Conlon conceded that they probably should look at what applications are in progress but that the town tuition program was not meant to be a “growth industry.”
Brady repeated her question about the percentage of publicly funded students. For Vermont Academy there was 15 out of 200. Brady followed with a question about what the longest commute for day students. Zaccara said the longest she was aware of was about 50 minutes. For North Bennington School they have over 90% publicly funded students.
Representative Stone asked Zaccara about the admissions process and the interview and fees associated with applications. She shared that they do waive the fees if families are unable to afford them and they do have scholarship programs that go all the way back to their founding. What they are looking for during the application process is students who can thrive at the school. They see themselves as a partner for students and families. Generally, they are “very open to all of their applicants.” Their four pillars of learning are ingenuity, independence, community, and land (outdoor learning). They are also looking for passions and interest for students so they can get them signed up for the right classes.
The Committee returned on Thursday to review draft 2.1 of their committee bill. The main portion of the bill essentially codifies the rule 2200 series for approved independent schools eligible to receive public tuition. After testimony earlier in the week, the new draft does not specify the frequency of attendance reporting. It instead defers to the Agency of Education (AOE) to create a format and interval for this reporting.
The draft introduced a few new requirements:
- Independent schools must notify LEA’s same-day when there is an enrollment change for students (withdrawals, expulsions, etc.).
- Require an open enrollment process for students on public tuition. This does not prevent the schools from having capacity limits, but it does mean that there needs to be a nondiscriminatory selection process. It also prevents certain enrollment practices like interviews.
- All state-mandated assessments shall be reported to the AOE annually and posted on the school website.
- A prohibition on schools charging more for publicly tuition students than private-pay students. And students may not be charged for application fees or any other fees for equivalent services or materials offered by public schools. This provision also requires that the head of school attest that no public funds were used to subsidize private pay students. Chairman Conlon admitted this was not an iron-clad provision but it does signal a policy intention.
NOTE: There is little evidence to suggest this is happening, but we know that private-pay students, particularly at boarding schools, ARE subsidizing public-pay students. St. Johnsbury Academy and others have acknowledged this.
Representative Toof questioned the fees provision because his kids to pay fees in public schools for athletics and some field trips. After discussion, the Committee agreed that this was problematic and limited this prohibition to just application fees, education materials, and lab fees.
Importantly, this draft of the bill maintains the prohibition on tuition payments to schools outside 25 miles of the Vermont border. These schools would also have to comply with many of the requirements and attestations that in-state schools do.
There was some debate in the Committee about how they could hold independent schools accountable for outcomes and how outcomes could be reported. While there was interest, Conlon didn’t feel like there was enough time to work through those issues before they had to vote the bill out at the end of the week.
Returning on Friday, the Committee heard from Mark Tucker (Superintendent, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union). His supervisory union tuitions nearly all high school students. He likes many of the provisions in the bill around equity and non-discrimination. He would like to see more done about special education billing and some of the reporting requirements. He also likes the notification requirements for dismissal of students from independent schools. Tucker pushed back on some of the attestations that independent schools suggested. He already has to make many of these with AOE.
He also disagreed with Secretary French’s suggestion that the best way to handle accountability issues is with a contract. He believes this should be a regulatory responsibility not an LEA responsibility. He also wondered how he was supposed to enforce a contract if they didn’t have an enforcement mechanism outside of legal action.
Representative McCann wondered about the scope of the problem with unannounced dismissals. Tucker didn’t have numbers in front of him but pointed to one example which happened last year with a student of his where they were dismissed without notifying him. He thinks there may have even been an instance where a student had been dismissed but the school was still invoicing for that student’s tuition.
Toof pushed back on the assertion that there wasn’t an enforcement mechanism in the 2200 rule series. Tucker hadn’t done his own research but based on French’s testimony from earlier in the week there didn’t appear to be a clear enforcement mechanism.
Jay Badams (Superintendent, Norwich/Hanover Interstate School District) spoke next. It was his first time in the statehouse and was relatively new to the Vermont education landscape. He came here in 2017 from Erie Pennsylvania where he was active and served on the State Board of Education. He acknowledged that the Committee had a difficult decision in front of them. He pointed to declining enrollment as creating pressures on the system because of the “zero-sum economics” involved, saying that found it ironic that “in the wake of Act 46 consolidation we continue to fund a parallel school system with negligible regulation, minimal oversight, and independence from duly elected school boards.”
He argued that schools which have 80% or more of students on public tuition are “dependent schools” rather than independent. In any other state a school with this profile would be a public charter school (Vermont is one of five states without charter schools).
He sees the “true debate” being that school choice has been a “conservative rallying cry” for decades. He pointed to Milton Friedman as the originator of this policy as a way to avoid accountability measures, he claimed. He cautioned the Committee that suggestions to create a full statewide choice system would create a “managerial nightmare.” If we commit to a free-market education system the state has a duty to make sure that there is a “level playing field” between the public and independent schools.
NOTE: Vermont’s system was the first in the country in the 1880’s, nearly four decades before Friedman was born. Vermont has actually tightened restrictions on public tuition in the last several decades. Many consider Vermont’s public tuitioning system to be the “right way” to implement a school choice system.
Chairman Conlon re-opened discussion on Friday afternoon by framing the bill as “taxpayer accountability” mechanism and feels that the bill goes “some distance” towards that goal. Legislative Counsel walked through draft 3.1 of the bill. There was new terminology proposed by the AOE for the new category of eligible schools created by the bill.
Changes from the previous draft include clarifying that therapeutic schools are not subject to this bill, reorganization of the language about open enrollment policies, fees for academic services and materials, and a request for the Agency of Education (AOE) to review all “laws, rules, quality standards, reporting requirements” that public schools adhere to and then make recommendations about which ones might make sense to apply to independent schools.
Representative Beck joined to Committee to speak to the admissions process and open enrollment system contemplated in the bill. He worried that prohibiting campus visits and other tools prohibited by the bill are used to help schools understand how they are going to serve that student. Campus visits in particular are useful to students understanding of where they want to go. If these tools were taken away, he warned. the Committee may “break down all the communication that currently exists between an independent school and the sending district.”
Representative Buss questioned how you “get to know a student and then choose to admit or not admit them without some sort of bias.”
Conlon noted that what they are hoping for is some assurance that kids are not being “counseled out” of applying in a way that results in schools picking and choosing who gets enrolled.
Representative Stone asked about an enforcement mechanism. Legislative Counsel confirmed that a complaint driven process was in place and the State Board of Education could suspend, revoke, impose conditions upon the approval of independent schools to receive public tuition.
Representative Brady suggested removing the accreditation section because it would give a “misleading sense of quality assurance.” She clarified it was a useful tool but does not further the public mission of the tuitioning program. Toof argued that “a big part” of the accreditation process is compliance with state rules. Brady thought there were two different processes between the public and private schools. Her worry was that, on the private side, NEASC accreditation was measuring performance against the mission of the school and if that mission was inherently discriminatory than the NEASC processes wouldn’t address that.
NOTE: Discriminatory issues are already addressed through other requirements for approved independent schools eligible to receive public tuition. The accreditation process was meant to create some level education quality assurance. These processes were so rigorous that public schools did not want to be forced to go through them because of limited time and resources.
Representative Williams voiced agreement with Toof that with the new 2200 rule series requirements around anti-discrimination would shift the paradigm of these reviews because compliance with state rules would now include these. Conlon framed the debate as outsourcing oversight or having AOE do it and providing them with the resources to do it.
There was not a strong argument either way and Conlon agreed to strike the language. He then steered the conversation back to the enrollment topic. He voiced discomfort about the ability for schools to pick and choose which publicly funded students they enroll. Brady preferred to keep the current language because she worried that any sort of application requirements, even if admissions decisions aren’t based on them, could inherently be discriminatory.
Representative Brownell voiced concern that we might “punish kids” because the committee was crafting language to address schools that are largely dependent on public dollars, but they are likely creating collateral damage for specialty schools (like ski academies) who may only take a few publicly-funded students. This will take away options that students may not have access to otherwise. Buss argued that “some students already don’t have that choice.”
Returning a couple hours later Legislative Counsel returned with updated language in draft 4.1 of the bill. There were some minor language and date changes that had been updated. Conlon acknowledged that they likely would not find consensus on this particular topic. He asked if members of the Committee had any final statements to make. Brady spoke up saying that she became a teacher 17 years ago because she believes that public schools are the “only institution we have left” to create a more “just and equal society.” She hoped that she was making the best decisions for students in Vermont because this is what she was passionate about following her years in public education. She restated that fundamentally she believes that “public dollars need to go to schools that can educate all students. Period, full stop.”
Toof spoke next, saying that he appreciated all the work the committee has done on this bill. He commented that his “holdup” was the admissions provision and that he “hadn’t heard enough testimony.” He added that “if that was out” he would be much more likely to support this bill. He shared that he things many people “vote with their feet” when it comes to education. He did this for his kids and they currently attend public schools.
Representative Taylor echoed these remarks. Up until the accreditation provision was included he was able to support the bill. Brownell also shared he couldn’t support the bill because of that provision.
Representative Stone shared that she will be supporting the bill, but there is still “a lot of work to be done.” She reminded the Committee that public education is a common benefit of all Vermonters and that it is the policy of the state that all Vermont students receive an education that is substantially equal.
Williams stated that she represents "a part of the state struggles most with suicide and depression, struggles most with transportation, ability to reach public schools, to keep a state college, and even to keep libraries open.” And this is “one more struggle they will have to go through,” she said as she burst into tears.
Conlon thanked her for being an advocate for the Northeast Kingdom and expressed regret that they could not get to a unanimous decision on this provision. They proceed to a vote which was 7-4-1 in favor of the bill with Toof, Taylor, Williams, and Brownell voting no.