As is his wont, State Auditor Doug Hoffer is questioning conventional wisdom. And it’ll probably win him as many popularity points as it usually does.
This week, Hoffer released a performance audit of Vermont’s “approved independent schools,” as they like to call themselves. (Heaven forbid you should call them “private schools,” which is what they are.) What he found, in the words of his report’s title, is that these schools “are not subject to most of the statutes and rules that govern public schools.”
These are private schools that have been approved by the state Board of Education to receive public tuition dollars. They are located in rural areas where it might not be practical for each district to serve its entire K-12 population. That may be enough of a public service to compensate for the fact that they are taking students and dollars away from the public school system.
But perhaps, if they’re accepting tens of millions in public funding every year, they should be held to the same standards as public schools.
And as Hoffer points out, they are decidedly not. This allows them to cut corners in ways that public schools cannot, and shields them from the kind of rigorous oversight that public schools are subject to from state officials and district voters.
After the jump: Details and conclusions.
Vermont statute requires the Secretary of Education to “supervise and direct the execution of the laws relating to the public schools and ensure compliance.” The statute does not contain such language for the Secretary’s duties pertaining to independent schools.
To become an AIS, a private school must be approved by the state Board. This approval must be renewed on a regular schedule. But otherwise, the law has no provision for anyone to “supervise and direct the execution of the laws” for these independent operators.
There’s also a relative lack of public oversight. Public schools must publish financial information and win approval for their budgets. Meetings of their governing boards must be warned and open to all. The responsibilities of those governing boards are defined in state law.
None of that applies to the independents.
Public schools are subject to Education Agency review of “academic proficiency, high quality staffing, personalization, safe and healthy schools, and investment priorities.” The indies are required only to supply the “minimum course of study.”
Principals and superintendents in the public school system work under state-defined rules for appointment and dismissal. Not so for their independent counterparts. Public schools must abide by class size rules, while indies must only “employ a sufficient number of professional staff for the population served.” That’s a much vaguer standard.
Teachers in public schools must be licensed. The standard for teachers in AIS’s is, again, vague: Each AIS must provide “professional staff qualified by training and experience in the areas in which they are assigned.”
There’s more. but you get the idea. AIS’s are held to looser, vaguer standards than public schools, and those standards are rarely enforced.
Which raises an obvious question: Shouldn’t any school accepting public funds be subject to the same rules and standards, the same requirements for oversight and transparency?
I don’t see why not.
These independent schools have a robust lobbying presence in the Statehouse (actual or virtual). Burr and Burton Academy, just by itself, spent $92,400 on lobbying in 2019-20. (It was a client of MMR, the biggest, baddest lobbying firm in Montpelier, as was St. Johnsbury Academy.) It remains to be seen if lawmakers have the gumption to put the indies and the public schools on an even footing.