State Auditor Doug Hoffer recently issued the second of two performance audits on Vermont’s approved independent schools. You may have missed it because it was virtually ignored by the #vtpoli media. (Both reports can be accessed here.)
The lack of coverage deserves a post of its own. For now, let’s get to the meat of Hoffer’s work. He didn’t find any smoking guns, but he did identify a striking trend and some definite lapses in oversight by the state. It’s a dangerous combination, especially with so many indy-related people on the state board of education.
Hoffer’s first report focused on an educational double standard: the rules for public schools and AIS’s are quite different, and favor the latter. The high points:
- The Education Secretary is required in state law to ensure that public schools comply with the law. There is no such provision for AIS’s.
- Public schools must follow public-records and open-meetings laws, ensuring a measure of transparency and accountability. The AIS’s do not.
- Educational quality standards are much looser for AIS’s than for public schools.
- Public schoolteachers must be licensed by the state. Not so for AIS’s.
There’s more, but that gives you the general idea that the indies can cut lots and lots of corners, and are less accountable for how they spend Education Fund money.
Now we get to Hoffer’s second report, which reveals that the AIS’s are taking a larger and larger share of K-12 dollars. Details after the jump.
First, a brief reminder. The AIS’s provide education to kids in districts that choose not to operate public schools of their own. The indies receive tuition payments from the state Education Fund. Out of the state’s 110 school districts, 45 do not operate their own schools. In order to receive public funds, each AIS must be approved by the state board of education.
There are 97 AIS’s in the state. But the majority of students — 60 percent — attend one of four academies: Burr and Burton, Lyndon, St. Johnsbury and Thetford.
In 2018/19, 3,407 students attended AIS’s. That’s about five percent of all Vermont students, and an eight percent increase since 2008/9.
The financial share of the pie has grown even more sharply. In 2008/9, the AIS’s received $49.8 million from the Education Fund. In 2018/19, that number was $85 million. That’s a 71 percent increase in ten years. And it clearly violates Gov. Phil Scott’s normally ironclad rule: Government spending should not exceed the inflation rate. I guess he gives the indies a pass.
If you believe in strong, healthy public schools, these are concerning trends. Especially given the much looser standards for AIS’s.
And Hoffer’s second report includes more troubling details on state oversight.
- The AIS approval process is flawed. “The Agency of Education did not always inform the board of education of problems,” the audit says. On example: The accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, reduced one AIS to “warning” status over concerns about its management and finances. When this school’s state approval came up for renewal by the Board of Education, the Education Agency did not inform the board of the accreditation problems. Not once, but twice. The school’s renewal was approved both times.
- When evaluating AIS’s for re-approval, the Ed Agency did not check that the schools were meeting minimum curriculum requirements.
- AIS approvals must be renewed every five years. Of the 15 renewals audited by Hoffer, one-third did not occur within five years. In one case, approval took eight and a half years.
- The Ed Agency did not require AIS’s to certify that they checked employees and contractors against the Child Protection Registry and the Vulnerable Adult Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Registry as required by state law.
As I said up top, there was no smoking gun in either of Hoffer’s audits. But overall, they show that more and more students — and public dollars — are going to the AIS’s. And state oversight isn’t nearly as thorough for AIS’s as it is for public schools.
This ought to concern the Agency and state lawmakers. But pardon me if I’m cynical on this point. The AIS’s, especially the Big Four, have many friends in the Legislature and spend heavily on Statehouse lobbying. Looking at their rising share of Ed Fund dollars, you’d have to say they’re getting their money’s worth.
But Hoffer’s work should be taken seriously — by the executive and legislative branches, and by the media. Which seems not to care one bit.