Vermont Discusses New Requirements For Independent Schools
As school enrollment has declined throughout Vermont over the past decade, competition for students has become a fact of life for high schools.
The state supports schools by sending a set amount of money per student, and falling enrollment means less money to pay for teachers, programs, transportation and other needs. Around Town Meeting time each year, school officials talk about how enrollment changes will affect school staffing — as in Woodstock, which cut teaching positions — or the residential school property tax rate — as in Bethel, where an uptick in enrollment mitigated the impact of proposed raises for teachers.
This year, however, the issue has reached the state Legislature, in the form of S.91, a bill that would require Vermont independent schools that reach a certain threshold of public financing to provide the same resources that public schools are required to provide. While this is a statewide issue, the law’s origins are local: state Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, filed the bill after conversations with South Royalton School officials.
“The inequity is very clear,” said Tom “Geo” Honigford, chairman of the Royalton School Board.
In Honigford’s view, South Royalton School is at an unfair disadvantage in competing for tuition students with The Sharon Academy, an independent high school in neighboring Sharon.
S.91 would require independent schools that receive public funding for one-third or more of its students to accept all students who apply, provide special education services in at least four categories of disability, offer free and reduced-price lunch, employ licensed teachers and administrators and conduct the same standardized testing required of public schools.
In two days of testimony before the Senate Education Committee, which McCormack chairs, both public school and private school officials aired their views and the bill seems destined for further study. But it has raised a potent issue, one that touches on Vermont’s strong and conflicting history of independent education and democratic values.
“The intent was to start the discussion and see where it goes,” McCormack said in a recent interview.
But S.91 didn’t read that way to Michael Livingston, head of school at The Sharon Academy.
“It’s not a good starting point,” Livingston said in an interview. Further, “it appeared to us to be moving pretty quickly.”
Vermont has around 125 independent schools, about half the number of public schools. Many of these are too small to be affected by S.91, while others serve the elementary grades, in which few Vermont students have school choice options.
Livingston sent out an alert to his school’s tight-knit community, and he and several other independent school leaders testified in Montpelier.
The issues raised by S.91 “are not the issues that parents and students talk to me about when they talk to me about education,” he said.
At present, 85 percent of Sharon Academy students are publicly funded, meaning they come from a town without a designated high school such as Sharon, Tunbridge, Stockbridge or Hartland.
The school has kept its tuition at the “state announced average,” the maximum amount that a sending town is obligated to pay. This year, the average is $12,461 per student.
“We keep our tuition at the state announced average so the school can reflect the community that it’s in,” Livingston said.
He said that that puts his school at a disadvantage, primarily because public schools spend more per pupil and are able to bond for capital improvements. “If we want to build something here, we have to raise that money on our own,” Livingston said.
The state has a 150-year history of independent schooling, he said. If the state wants to change the rules under which those schools have operated, “that’s going to have to involve a lot of discussions about what the state is going to pay,” Livingston said.
Perhaps the terms of the discussion could be reversed, he added. Rather than require more of independent schools, perhaps the state could ease the burdens on public ones.
“Let’s sit down and talk about mandates that are placed on the public schools that handicap them to some degree,” he said.
But Honigford said he doesn’t see the requirements proposed in S.91 as burdensome, save for the need to admit all students who apply. “How can you deny a student admission to a school if the public is paying for it?” he said.
The issue, he said, is when a school is funded primarily with public money, yet can decline to provide services public schools — which compete for the same dollars — are required to provide.
“This is public money we’re talking about,” Honigford said. “The law would set in once a school sets its sights on the public money.”
As currently written, the bill would affect only 14 private schools, Honigford said.
The bill comes back up for discussion in the committee tomorrow. A likely result could be the appointment of a summer study committee, McCormack said.
“It is fully my intention as chair of education to hear from all sides and to let this take as much time as it needs,” McCormack said.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com, or 603-727-3219.