by Ben Kinsley
H.483, approved by the House this year and up for Senate review in January, restricts public tuition payments to independent schools.
H.483 is the Legislature’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Carson v. Makin, prohibiting a ban on public school tuitioning to religious private schools. The bill places new restrictions around admissions policies and added reporting requirements on all Vermont independent schools (secular and religious), restricts out of state options for students in choice districts, and places a moratorium on the approval of new independent schools.
- An approved independent school that intends to accept public tuition shall be approved by the State Board as eligible to receive public tuition only on the condition that the school complies with the following requirements:
- Must accept any student who requires special education services.
- Must provide an attendance report to local supervisory union.
- Must provide academic progress reports to local education districts and the state.
- Notification of any enrollment changes must be sent to local school district.
- Compliance with the Vermont Public Accommodations Act and the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act will be required.
- The school may not use an admissions process that includes:
- Mandatory interviews
- Academic entrance exams
- Academic history
- Mandatory campus visits
- Consideration of ability to pay
- Additionally, a statement of nondiscrimination must be posted on the school’s website and included on application materials. The head of school must annually attest to their compliance
- Creates new requirements that publicly-tuitioned students pay the same or lower tuition rate than private pay students, that there is no application fee, academic fee, or any other fees for academic materials, and that the school attests to compliance with all statutory requirements.
- Under the bill, publicly-tuitioned students would be limited to only schools within a 25-mile radius of the Vermont border. Those schools would be required to adopt and implement policies to comply with antidiscrimination laws and many of the of the other new requirements being placed on in-state schools.
- To ensure students attending approved independent schools eligible to receive public tuition receive the services they are entitled to, the Agency of Education shall provide a detailed recommendation for a Public Tuition Student Advocate position to the legislature by January, 2024.
- A moratorium on approval of new independent schools elligibile to receive public tuition would also be put into effect.
Requires special education services be provided to students (already in state rule)
Requires academic progress reporting to the Agency of Education (already in state law)
Requires compliance with anti-discrimination laws (already in state rule)
Requires new academic and enrollment reporting to local education districts.
The new admissions process has the potential to greatly hinder the ability of both a school and a student to make sure that the school can meet the needs of an applicant. This is likely to have unintended consequences for students.
The limitations on tuition will force schools to internalize any academic fees as they can’t recoup those through tuition payments. Additionally, the bill does not consider that the publicly-tuitioned students may be more expensive to educate than private-pay students.
The 25-mile limit on public tuition in arbitrary and not based on any discernable facts. A contiguous state requirement would make more sense here.
The moratorium on new independent schools is a blunt instrument and will prevent new schools from forming to meet the needs of our changing education environment.
While this bill may be well-intentioned, it trips over existing rulemaking in ways that restrict the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education’s ability to react to changing conditions on the ground (the reason both entities opposed the final version of the bill).
It unnecessarily eliminates an application process for tuitioning students at independent schools but does not do the same for public schools. Proponents argue that public schools don’t have an application process, but that is actually untrue for non-resident students. Notably, many Career and Technical Education Centers turn students away regularly because they don’t meet the requirements of the program or don’t have the requisite skills to be successful. Independent schools are often specialized and purpose-driven, like CTE centers. Denying them the ability to interview and talk to students prior to enrollment would be detriment to both the school and the students ability to ensure that the school will meet the needs of the student.
Proponents will also argue that a blind admissions process is necessary to prevent discrimination, however the State Board of Education’s 2200 series rules already specify that any admissions process MUST be anti-discriminatory or schools could lose their approval status to accept public tuitioning dollars (a threat that public schools do not face).
We have already seen these rules at work protecting students. Earlier this year, two schools were denied approval because they refused to comply with this provision.
The bill also limits the tuition that independent schools can charge, meaning they cannot charge more for publicly-tuitioned students than private-pay students (even if the statewide default tuition rate is higher).
This is problematic. No analysis has been done to determine whether publicly-tuitioned students cost more to educate than tuition-paying students. This is a particularly important question because independent schools are required to take special education students (if they are publicly-tuitioned) and those additional student supports cannot be considered during the application process.
The second reason this is problematic is that it likely impacts tuition assistance that independent schools offer to private-pay students. Often times families may barely be able to afford tuition for their student and schools may offer income-based aid in order for the student to attend. The mechanism that this bill uses is taking the average tuition charged by an independent school and using that as the threshold for publicly-tuitioned students. Financial aid may draw down this average tuition rate, meaning that schools may either have to increase their base tuition or offer less financial aid in order maintain their public tuition rates. Either option is problematic for both schools and students who are paying out of pocket.
The third reason that limiting tuition is problematic is that the bill also bans academic fees that parents may have to pay outside of tuition (this provision makes sense). However, because schools cannot charge academic fees, and they cannot raise tuition rates to compensate for these costs, schools would end up eating these fees.
The 25-mile limitation on where students can take their public tuition dollars is arbitrary and is not the result of any meaningful analysis of tuitioning patterns, school locations, or programming needs. Further, this precludes any regional specialty schools that may advantage particular students. For example, a gifted clarinet player who wants to attend a specialized music school in Massachusetts, but it is beyond the 25-mile boundary. Their parents would have to either pay out of pocket or settle for a different school that does not meet the student’s needs in the same way.
Finally, while a moratorium on approving new independent schools to receive public tuition dollars is effective at preventing additional religious schools from applying to receive public tuition dollars (which likely wouldn’t be many anyway), it also prevents new schools from forming to address unmet needs in their communities. We have seen examples of this over the past couple decades, most notably the Sharon Academy which serves roughly 80% public students.
The overall theme of this bill is to try to make independent schools more like public schools, however this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the public tuition system (school choice) is and how it functions. Public schools are required to take all resident students in a non-choice system because there is no other option. In a public choice system, the environment that best suits a students educational needs guides the decision on where they attend school instead of their zip code. We should celebrate this diversity of choice and individualized learning.
In systems such as this, individual schools do not need to be all things to all students. They can specialize and focus on core competencies that make students stronger (like the afore-mentioned arts programs). We have seen what happens in public schools when they are not equipped to meet the needs of certain students, and it’s not pretty.
The bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee on April 4, 2023 after passing the House. The bill has not moved since.
Republished from website of Campaign From Vermont, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to the vision of a more prosperous Vermont.