Are VT’s “Approved Independent Schools” Too Independent?

Scrappy little independent, there.

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.

For example:

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.

9 thoughts on “Are VT’s “Approved Independent Schools” Too Independent?

  1. Kevin J Kelley

    Clast them icons, Doug! And good on you, JW, for calling attention to the report. The situation it describes is similar in some ways to that of the ultra-orthodox yeshivas of NYC, where I now live. They drench their students in religious lore while often failing to provide even a semi-rounded education. And the city doesn’t do anything about it, owing to political squirming:

    Reply
  2. bombaysapphiremartiniupwithextraolivesstirred

    And what would Betsy DeVos have to say about this? Twenty-eight days and counting.

    Reply
  3. H. Jay Eshelman

    Contrary to popular belief, Approved Independent Schools (yes, private schools that receive publicly funded Vermont Tuition vouchers) are obliged to follow virtually all of the same rules so-called public schools do. The exceptions are, more often than not, not statutory. In any case, the Independent School approval process is extensive, to say the least.

    This is a complex issue. So I won’t attempt to explain the various and nuanced points that often arise in that regard here in one comment. But I invite anyone to offer their alternative perspective, point by point, as they come to mind, for me to address.

    VPO readers should also be aware of two SCOTUS decisions (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris and Espinoza v. Montana) allowing the expansion of public funds to private religious schools, and a current case pending in Vermont’s Federal Court based on those decisions.
    https://ij.org/press-release/vermont-parents-sue-state-over-unconstitutional-school-choice-policy/

    Reply
  4. H. Jay Eshelman

    Here’s a sample of what you will be considering in this discussion.

    Consider:
    2000 EDUCATION QUALITY STANDARDS 2100 STATUTORY AUTHORITY 16 V.S.A. §§164 and 165 2110 Statement of Purpose: The purpose of these rules is to ensure that all students in Vermont public schools are afforded educational opportunities that are substantially equal in quality, and enable them to achieve or exceed the standards approved by the State Board of Education.

    Click to access edu-state-board-rules-series-2000.pdf

    If the purpose of rules set forth by the Vermont Legislature, the Agency of Education and its State Board of Education, are ‘to ensure’ that ‘all students’… are enabled “…to achieve or exceed the standards approved by the State Board of Education”, why do nearly 50% of Vermont’s students fail to meet these standards?

    Good question. The point is in the legalese of the requirement. While students are ‘enabled’ to achieve these standards, there is nothing in the statute or rule stating that they ‘shall’ meet those standards.

    Reply
  5. H. Jay Eshelman

    There are profound contradictory statements in the auditor’s report. For example:

    On Page 2 of the report, it states that:
    “…both public and approved independent schools are required to meet the minimum course of study in 16 V.S.A. §906 (e.g., reading) but only public schools must meet education quality standards.”

    Yet, on page 3 it states:
    “16 V.S.A. §821 and §822. These statutes also allow tuition to be paid to independent schools meeting education quality standards.”

    Are the education quality standards different in public schools and independent schools? Go to page 13 of the report, then reference the Series 2000 Education Quality Standards Manual of Rules and Practices for public schools, in which it states on the title page:

    “Nothing herein shall be construed to entitle any student to educational programs or services identical to those received by other students in the same or different school districts.”

    These requirements (or the lack thereof) also beg the question as to whom the education quality standards apply, the school, or the students? Again, while any school, public or private, is required to meet a certain standard, there is no statutory language requiring students to achieve a specific performance standard. Again, nearly 50% of Vermont’s public school graduates fail to meet the State’s SmarterBalance performance assessments.

    Reply
  6. H. Jay Eshelman

    If anything, the auditor’s report gives us the opportunity to consider but a few examples of Vermont’s massive public education governance conundrum.

    And, curiously, the report’s title, [Approved Independent [Private] Schools Are Not Subject to Most of the Statutes and Rules That Govern Public Schools] is misleading. After all, there is nothing in the report addressing the ultimate path to transparency and accountability. Namely, an education free marketplace provided by a school district’s ability to tuition students to the approved public or independent school each student’s parents determine best meets the educational needs of their children. After all, schools that fail to be transparent and accountable will lose their customers.

    Because Vermont has 109 school districts, two interstate school districts, of which only 45 pay tuition rather than operate schools for some or all grade levels, Vermont statutes fail to meet its stated goal. Specifically, “…to ensure that all students in Vermont public schools are afforded educational opportunities that are substantially equal in quality, and enable them to achieve or exceed the standards approved by the State Board of Education.” Only when all Vermont School Districts allow parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s need, public or private, will those students be “…afforded educational opportunities that are substantially equal in quality”.

    Reply
  7. H. Jay Eshelman

    Lastly, for now at least, I want to take this opportunity to express my dismay with the politicization of anti-school-choice rhetoric, of which Auditor Hoffer’s report is clearly a part. To mention the amount of money a private school spends lobbying the state legislature, and ignore the massive coercion applied to legislators by public school special interest groups, is disingenuous at best.

    For example:
    The Vermont State Board of Education includes a Legislative Subcommittee. This committee “…proposes new legislative action, reviews current legislative initiatives, and advises the legislature on amendments and proposed laws…”. The committee is chaired by long-time board member, William Mathis, who is also the managing director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado. Mathis’ charge at the NEPC is to “produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions… guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.”

    I repeat, that’s to strengthen ‘public education’, not private School Choice. The NEPC is funded by the likes of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – the teacher’s unions. They are the largest, wealthiest, and most politically active organizations in the country, and they are steadfastly opposed to School Choice. This explains, in part, why Vermont’s public-school governance is contrived and dysfunctional. Never mind that Vermont’s public school student academic performance is as anemic as it is, while its public school per student education costs are the highest in the nation. That Mr. Mathis sits on the State Board of Education is, and has been for a long time, a clear conflict of interest.

    Reply

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