Vermont’s education secretary let the cat out of the regulatory bag on Wednesday. He acknowledged that state regulation of approved independent schools is, as Willy Shakes put it, “more honored in the breach than the observance.”
Dan French was speaking to the state board of education, a body not known for an aggressive attitude toward the AIS’s. But this time, they’d had it up to here.
VTDigger’s Lola Duffort reported on French’s testimony, casting it primarily in terms of the troubled Kurn Hattin Homes for Children. Kurn Hattin gave up its license to operate a residential treatment program in the face of enforcement action by the Department of Children and Families (the department cited a pervasive culture of abuse) — and yet, the Ed Agency rubber-stamped Kurn Hattin’s status as an approved independent school.
Well, on Wednesday we found out how the agency arrived at that curious conclusion. And it ought to send shivers down the spine of every parent and educator and, heck, every taxpayer in the state.
What French said, in essence, is that his agency does nothing to verify whether the schools are complying with state standards. The process depends on documentation provided by, you guessed it, the schools themselves.
Duffort writes that the agency’s review process on Kurn Hattin “did not include an in-person visit to the school or interviews with its students.” French initially blamed this on the Covid pandemic, but went on to acknowledge that this is pretty much standard operating procedure. Again, Duffort:
He added that the focus of the state’s review was “on those administrative procedures which are germane to our regulation,” and that a remote check-in should be “sufficient to ensure compliance.”
Members of the state board seemed a little gobsmacked by this — including those who are generally sympathetic to approved independent schools such as the board’s new chair, Oliver Olson. He asked French if “the only true way to test” Kurn Hattin’s adherence to the law wasn’t through site visits and personal interviews. French’s response reeked of impotent bureaucrat:
“To what extent it’s necessary to interview students to do that or not, you know, we’d certainly reserve that option. But I’m not convinced that it’s absolutely necessary.”
In other words, we’re quite content with See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.
This is concerning, first of all, because AIS’s receive taxpayer funds for educating students who don’t have access to local public schools. But it’s about to become a lot more crucial because the Bush/Trump federal courts are eating away at church-state separation. It’s almost certain that Vermont will have to start paying tuition to private schools, including religious schools.
To the best of my knowledge, Vermont can direct tuition dollars to purely educational activities and prohibit schools from using public funds for religious education. But if the agency’s regulatory oversight basically takes a school’s word that it’s complying with the law, well, the door is wide open to flouting that prohibition.
There’s one thing I can say in the agency’s favor. I doubt that it has the resources to conduct site visits and intensive reviews of every school’s performance. Given the fact that we’re likely to see a court-mandated explosion in the number of “approved independent schools,” its resources will be even more inadequate.
If state officials and lawmakers are interested in maintaining some kind of church-state separation in our school system, we’re going to do a thorough review of the rules and laws, and probably make a big investment in regulatory oversight.
On the other hand, maybe you’re okay with your tax dollars being spent to teach kids that gay people are going to Hell.