Overhaul of Vermont’s special education system may need to wait a year

Published: 5/22/2019 8:59:23 PM
Modified: 5/22/2019 8:59:15 PM

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are poised to delay implementation of Act 173, a massive overhaul of the state’s special education system passed just last year.

A panel tasked by the Legislature with advising the state about the law’s rollout came to the Statehouse this spring to tell lawmakers the state just wasn’t ready and that the law’s effective date should be moved by a year. The request got push back from the Agency of Education, which argued the state could save millions by moving according to schedule. And the deferral request nearly fell prey to a spat between the House and Senate Education Committee chairs, who otherwise appeared to agree a delay was necessary.

But language proposed by House Education chairwoman Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, to delay key sections of Act 173 — including around rule-making and funding shifts — now has been included in the budget bill, a frequent repository for last-minute legislative requests. Her counterpart in the Senate, Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, approved the language as has the committee of lawmakers tasked with negotiating a final budget between the House and the Senate.

The budget bill must still go back to the House and Senate for a final vote before heading to the governor for a signature, but with key lawmakers signed off, the delay is considered a done-deal.

The state spent close to $190 million in special education payments to local school districts last year, refunding districts for programming that helps the most vulnerable students.

Act 173 was passed to much fanfare, with the twin goals of addressing special education’s notoriously complex bureaucracy and ever-climbing costs. To do so, it transitions the state from a reimbursement model for funding special education to a census-block grant system, where schools receive a set amount in special education dollars based on its total student population.

Much of the anxiety around implementing the law according its original deadline has to do with a perceived lack of capacity at the agency. The state entity charged with overseeing Vermont’s $1.7 billion education fund and spearheading statewide school initiatives has lost about a fourth of its staff to post-Recession budget cuts. And observers also point to vacancies or turnover in top, key positions.

“We had the CFO, we had the deputy secretary, and we had a longstanding special ed director. They’re all gone. The agency is currently building their capacity and their staff,” Webb said.

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