Approved Independent Schools Are Under-Regulated and Growing

The High Castle Burr and Burton Academy

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.

6 thoughts on “Approved Independent Schools Are Under-Regulated and Growing

  1. H. Jay Eshelman

    – 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.

    False. Independent schools must be approved by the Agency of Education and its State Board.

    – Public schools must follow public-records and open-meetings laws, ensuring a measure of transparency and accountability. The AIS’s do not.

    False. Public Schools have no such requirements. It is the school district boards that are required to abide by open meeting laws. Independent schools, even those independent schools with students receiving tuition vouchers, are subject to similar accountability, again, as governed by the Agency of Education and its State Board as a condition of the independent school approval process.

    But Independent schools are actually more accountable to the people who count, the parents and students choosing to attend them. If an independent school operates with the same impunity as our failing public schools, parents choose alternatives. For parents held hostage in districts with no tuition vouchers there are no alternatives.

    – Educational quality standards are much looser for AIS’s than for public schools.

    False. Education Quality Standards are in the eye of the beholder. Again, parents choose an independent school because they’re convinced the school does a better job educating their children than does the public school system.

    In fact, just how loose can education quality standards be in the public school system? While public schools graduate 90% of their students, only half of them meet grade level standards – explaining why only 40% of those graduates go on to college. And of those 40% that do go to college, half again require remedial instruction before taking their college level courses – explaining why most of them never graduate.

    – Public schoolteachers must be licensed by the state. Not so for AIS’s.

    Misleading. Independent school teachers instructing Special Education services, as listed in a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), are required to be proficient in their areas of practice.

    And licensure of Regular Education public school teachers is perfunctory at best. Teachers can pass the generic Praxis assessments or cite their SAT, ACT or GRE scores. For example, a teacher can be approved with combined Verbal and Math SAT score of 1100 with a minimum 480 on Verbal and 530 in Math.

    But the point being overlooked is the effectiveness of these licensing requirements. When only half of Vermont public school students meet grade level standards, clearly, the public-school licensing requirements are ineffective, to say the least.

    In the final analysis it’s clear. Auditor Hoffer (an elected official with campaign funding requirements) is carrying water for Vermont’s failing public school special interest groups reelecting him every year. Now that more and more parents are figuring out what a sham the public education monopoly is, these paper tiger rules and regulations are of little consequence. A public-school diploma, and the rules and regulations governing it, are proving to be worth less than the paper on which they are written.

    Reply
  2. H. Jay Eshelman

    – 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.

    False.
    16 V.S.A. § 822. School district to maintain public high schools or pay tuition…
    (c)(1) A school district may both maintain a high school and furnish high school education by paying tuition:
    (A) to a public school as in the judgment of the school board may best serve the interests of the students; or
    (B) to an approved independent school or an independent school meeting education quality standards if the school board judges that a student has unique educational needs that cannot be served within the district or at a nearby public school.
    (2) The judgment of the board shall be final in regard to the institution the students may attend at public cost.

    Reply
      1. H. Jay Eshelman

        It’s not your synopsis I’m criticizing, John. I’m a former school board director and Workforce Investment Board member (liaison between schools and businesses). I’ve studied education rules and regulations for years. And you shouldn’t be too concerned that you didn’t understand 16 V.S.A. § 822. During episode 9 of the TNR video series, Travels With Charlie, for example, it became apparent that even Dan French, VT Education Secretary, wasn’t aware of the existing education options current Vermont law provides parents.
        http://www.truenorthreports.com/travels-with-charlie-episode-9

        My concern is with Auditor Hoffer’s understanding, who’s assessment of Independent Schools you cited. Clearly, Mr. Hoffer knows very little about Vermont’s public-school monopoly. Your readers should do their own research. After all, it does comes down to ‘every jot (sic) and tittle (sic) of the law’. And guys like Doug Hoffer are counting on you to not understand that.

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        “Monopoly” is a misnomer for a system that’s designed to fairly and consistently provide a social good. If the public schools are a monopoly, so are the police and fire departments, parks and libraries.

      3. H. Jay Eshelman

        The public school system, as it is in Vermont, monopolizes tax funding (independent schools don’t/can’t), and, through truancy laws, requires children to attend them (especially when parents don’t have the financial ability to choose alternatives).

        Paradoxically, the police are anything but a monopoly. First, I can choose to defend myself, my family and my property. We also have alternatives – local municipal police, sheriffs, the State police, the FBI, and, as our privileged one percenters often do, hire independent security. But there is no statute requiring me to use anyone’s services. And with the current prospect of ‘defunding local police’, assigning the term monopoly to them is a paradox indeed.

        Fire departments: Ditto. There is no statute requiring me to use our fire department services or preventing me from arranging my own fire protection. Our local fire department is volunteer.

        Parks and Libraries: Hardly. There are all sorts of alternatives available to the average person, and, certainly, nothing in our statutes requiring anyone to use any specific park or library service.

        In the final analysis, compared with all historic anti-trust circumstances in the past, there has never been an institution as monopolistic as the public education system. Not the railroads. Not Standard Oil. Even Google and Twitter, with their control of web hosting, don’t hold a candle to the monopolistic power of the public education system.

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