Capital Briefs

VT tries taking independence from independent schools

This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.

A bill that could have cramped the independence of Vermont’s independent schools has been set aside, at least for now.

“It would have been very burdensome and very troublesome,” said Mill Moore, executive director of Vermont Independent Schools Association. “Its fundamental premise was that the state can take control of independent schools’ internal management policies, like admissions and teacher licensing, things that for 150 years have been separate from the state. It would have been a very massive intrusion of the state into the nonprofit sector.”

“Probably, (the bill) as introduced will most likely not pass this year,” said Sen. Dick McCormack, chair of the Senate’s education committee, at a committee meeting this week. “The issue, however, remains very much alive.”

Among other restrictions, the bill would require licenses for all teachers serving at independent schools receiving enough students on a public tuition program.

“Their requiring us to hire certified teachers begins to restrict our ability to staff the building in a manner we think is best for our kids,” said Tom Martin, principal of theVillage School, an independent school in North Bennington.

The requirement seems based on the idea certified teachers are better teachers, Martin said.

“I would assume that that’s the logic behind this: if a teacher is certified, it ensures qualified teachers,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know that’s not necessarily the case.”

At the Village School, all the teachers except one are certified — that one only needs to take a standardized test — so the initial impact of the bill on that school would be minimal. But it would deny the school the ability to hire quality teachers in the future if those teachers are not certified.

“I question whether or not a test is a valid measure of someone’s effectiveness as a teacher,” Martin said. “This particular person is a wonderful teacher, by the way, and does a great job for us.”

Earlier this week, Tom Honigford of South Royalton School Board testified to the Senate Education Committee. He referred to testimonies he’d heard from representatives of independent schools:

“One of the things that almost all of their testimonies circulates around is the fact that, ‘Hey, we’re already doing this. We are inclusive. We welcome everybody; we are providing some of these services.’ … My response is, ‘That’s great. Let’s codify it. Let’s make sure this happens. You’re already doing it, it shouldn’t be too much of a burden to keep going down that path.”

The bill’s opponents argue the issue is less about teacher licensing and more about the independence of independent schools.

“It would have blossomed beyond the educational issue and into ‘how far can the state go in intruding into nonprofits?’” Moore said.

Vermont is unique in that it has a large number of students attending nonpublic schools with public dollars. Towns are small – the state has always been rural – and it didn’t make sense to build a public school in all of them. To fulfill the state’s obligation to provide a free education to all Vermont children, the tuitioning system has been running since the 1800s.

If a student lived in a town without a public school, public money would follow that student to any non-faith-based school, public or independent. Some towns had established private schools, which became “town academies” – guaranteeing admission to all the town’s students if the town agreed to make up the difference, through local taxes, between state funding and tuition.

Last year, residents of North Bennington responded to financial, demographic and political difficulties by effectively converting their public school into an independent town academy — the Village School, which Martin leads. Other districts have considered similar moves.

The conversions have irked the education establishment, and the bill was “absolutely” a response to North Bennington, said Robert Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

“In recent days … there seems to be a more focused discussion on trying to prevent more North Benningtons,” said Sen. Don Collins, vice chair of the education committee and one of four senators who introduced the bill.

“Many of these schools get a large amount of operating funds from public funds,” Collins told Watchdog.org. “If you’re taking public money to fund your programs … you should meet the same requirements that public schools do.”

He said he understands the independent schools’ concern about losing their independence.

“I would say the same thing if I were an independent school. We’ll leave you alone, but if we leave you alone, you won’t get the state money, either,” he said.

Roper said he was skeptical of that argument.

“The arguments proponents are making are equity. If public dollars are being given to independent schools, they ought to follow the same rules and regulations (as public schools). If they’re going to make that argument, then the independent schools should be getting the same amount of money, which is a difference of about $5,000 per pupil,” he said.

“If they’re really going to make it equitable, public schools should have to compete for students as well, which of course they’re not going to go for,” he said.

Vermont legislators are considering other ways to hamper local control of the state’s schools, including a two-year moratorium on communities converting their schools from public to independent, and consolidation of public schools districts.

“We’ve gotten a great deal of support for the notion that there’s a problem with deflecting public school dollars into private schools,” McCormack said at the Wednesday meeting. “We have heard from virtually the entire education establishment, which seems to agree that that’s a problem.”

Restricting local control and parental say over children’s education is the problem, Roper said.

“If you’re a parent and you’re sending your kid to an independent school or you live in a choice town,” he said, “you ought to be up in arms.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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