Roper: Partisan legislators are going after the wrong schools

VT public school system is collapsing under “one-size-fits-all” mandates

By Robert Roper

Vermont has two systems for delivering public education. The one based on parental choice and allowing students to find the right fit – “tuitioning” in 90 or so towns — is working. And the more common system that assigns a school based on zip code regardless of the student’s real needs – traditional public school — is failing. 

But this legislative session Democratic lawmakers – in an incredibly selfish and shortsighted tantrum — are using their new-found super-supermajority power to dismantle the system that’s working and expand the one that is failing.

The common attack by critics of Vermont’s independent schools is that they don’t serve all students, especially those with challenging special needs. This charge is not exactly true. What is also not true is that the government run public schools actually do serve the needs of all students. They may be nominally required to do so. They may be in many cases warehousing these kids. But Vermont public schools are increasingly not serving them. In fact, the mandate to “accept all children” into one building is creating a dangerously toxic environment for all involved – students, teachers, support staff, and administrators.

These facts were laid bare in testimony before the House Education Committee from representatives of the Vermont Superintendents’ Association discussing the increasing mental health issues that students are bringing into classrooms, and the schools’ lack of staffing and lack of training to deal with it.

Lynn Cota of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union outlined in a presentation the disturbing patterns of behavior they are now seeing throughout the Vermont public school system, “Violent outbursts and vandalism, increased sexualized behavior, disruption and defiance, and threats of harm to self or others.”

Cota’s testimony exposed the truth about how public schools are failing special needs students. Contrary to the belief that public schools take all comers, students who have severe special needs are farmed out to programs specifically trained to treat those needs. This is a good thing! (It’s a good thing when independent schools do this too.) 

However, what is happening today is that these therapeutic programs are either full and have waiting lists, or the students being sent by the public schools have issues too severe for these programs to handle. In both cases, the student is sent back into the public-school setting – where his or her needs are not being met.

“So, what this means,” said Cota, “is that schools have students, often in many of our cases many students, whose placements in our public schools don’t match the intensity and complexity of their needs. So, they are in the least restrictive environment with needs that can be at the level that historically would have resulted in something like residential treatment.” This dynamic is destructive to the special needs student and the rest of the school community.

Libby Bonesteel, Superintendent of the Washington Roxbury school district, described what results from this in chilling terms. “Public schools are in a crisis,” said Bonesteel. “Every school system has students who are explosive in ways that we have never seen before…. Teachers are quite literally scared, and administrators are at a loss. People are getting hurt, and rooms are getting trashed.”

Bonesteel described one classroom that is covered in plywood because of the amount of damage students have done to the walls, and a morning she spent cleaning up an elementary school’s library after a child went on a tantrum and ripped five hundred books off the shelves.

Cota concluded that as a result of this dysfunctional dynamic, Vermont’s public school system is at a breaking point. “We have students who are not having their mental health needs met, and we have staff, teachers and administrators who are approaching burnout if they’re not already there.”

The teacher burn-out crisis was highlighted in earlier testimony by Jay Nichols of the Vermont Principal’s Association, who said that there are currently 1,056 unfilled open jobs in the Vermont public K-12 school system. “This is a crazy number, especially when you consider we’re not in July or August,” said Nichols.

“Additionally,” said Nichols, “we are seeing support staff such as general paraeducators and individual student aides being pulled away from their assignments to cover classrooms so school can be held when teachers are absent. This creates huge issues with students not being able to access IEP [special education] services simply because there is no personnel available to do so.”

In addition to the lack of staff, Colin Robinson of the VTNEA testified, “There are 1,200 teachers serving on provisional or emergency licenses in our schools. That means folks who don’t have full certification or are teaching outside of their licensed subject area.” A normal number, according to Robinson, would be in the 200 range.

At the end of her presentation Cota was asked if these disruptions were having an impact on the other students in the schools. “The reality,” said Cota, “is that we have disruptions in our schools every day. I think we are all trying to do our best to minimize that impact on other students, but other students are seeing things that similar cohorts of students would not have seen five or ten years ago. So, I think there’s an impact on our students…. And it’s not only the students, it’s also the staff.”

A majority in the Vermont legislature cling to the myth that putting all students together in the same building and giving them all the same educational environment somehow constitutes equity. Nothing is further from the truth. One-size-fits-all in reality only fits a few. As the above testimony vividly demonstrates, putting students with severe special needs into conventional classrooms with teaching staff not trained to deal with their healthcare issues is harmful to the student, to the teacher, to the other students in the building, and to the system as a whole.

Students – today more than ever – need the ability to find the kind of educational environment that best suits their learning and their emotional needs. Parents in Vermont’s school choice tuitioning towns are able to choose from between many different types of educational environments, such as Waldorf, Montessori, traditional, large, small, academic focused, art focused, special needs specific, college fast-track, or a state-run public school if that’s what’s best. While not every school is right for every kid, the choice system does a far better job of making sure there is a right school for every kid – and that every kid has a more equitable opportunity to attend that school that is most right for him or her. This system is working.

Our public school system is failing. Test scores are dropping. Students are increasingly not well. Qualified teachers are leaving the system and new ones are not coming in. Costs are exploding without positive results. It’s time for a major re-thinking of how we, the public, educate the next generation of children.

So, what do our elected lawmakers want to do? With S.66 – “An act relating to the provision of State-funded education in districts that do not maintain an elementary or high school” they seek to dismantle school choice in Vermont where it exists and obliterate the independent schools that support that system. And with S.56 – “An act relating to child care and early childhood education” they want to expand the dysfunctional system by another grade, exposing four-year-olds to the daily traumas of understaffed classrooms being torn apart by classmates who need and deserve to be somewhere else getting the help they need.

Predictions on how this will work out?  

Media Notes: On Air: I will be on WVMT’s “The Morning Drive,” Monday, February 13, 7:30 – 8:30 am (AM620, FM96.3). Tune in and call in if you can!

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Categories: Commentary

7 replies »

  1. Re: “Predictions on how this will work out? ”

    You can’t fool Mother Nature. And you can’t fool the market (i.e., the people) either. At least not for long.

    “Seattle Public Schools consider closures as student enrollment plunges – ”

    “The declining enrollment comes after homeschooling rates nearly doubled…”

    “Student enrollment has dropped to roughly 50,000 students from nearly 54,000 in the 2019-2020 school year. In a best-case scenario, school administrators expect 49,000 students by 2032, and in a worst-case scenario, enrollment may be as low as 43,000.”

    “I really think that what Seattle’s seeing, where those students have gone are either to private schools or they’ve left the school district and have moved elsewhere…”

    Vermont’s progressive legislature should take note. In the final analysis, failure breeds failure. And not only will the education special interest groups be the last one’s left holding the bag, they won’t have anyone but themselves to blame for their failures.

    Think about it. Vermont, as an entire State, has only twice as many public school students as Seattle, WA. Both districts are similarly progressive. And the folks in Seattle are just beginning to see the effects of their dystopia. Vermont enrollments, after all, have declined from a peak of over 100,000 to around 75,000 today.

    The writing is on the blackboard. But, apparently, no one knows how to read it.

  2. School Choice is the only education system that can satisfy everyone’s educational sensibilities. The problem is that ‘education’ is not the driving force behind those who would deny those choices. Control of taxpayer money is their only motivation. Period.

    How many times, for example, do we hear that School Choice takes money away from the public schools?

    Well, yes. School Choice will take money from the public schools, as long as the public schools provide a failing and harmful service. Failing academic performance. Exorbitantly high costs. Deteriorating discipline and mental health.

    “They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” – T. S. Eliot

    …or, they are corrupt and no better than bullies, thieves and tyrants.

  3. There is plenty of blame to go around for why our society is producing young citizens with serious mental and behavioral problems but the factor that cuts right to the root cause is the high number of families lacking a father or at least a father figure. While our leftist social policies have for years dismissed and belittled the importance of the nuclear family, even the teachers and administrators now have to sit back and watch their students act out their frustrations and lack of behavioral boundaries. Not to be promoting corporal punishment here, but in the “old days” when a student acted out in an antisocial manner they were given 2 choices choices…to be hit with the front or the back of the teachers’ hand. Maybe the “time out” thing just doesn’t get the point across that there should be consequences for bad behavior. It used to be a valuable lesson for later in life when the criminal justice system actually meted out consequences but in these days of the left making the rules even adults are treated as victims of an uncaring society and allowed to run amok. We voted for this.
    Nice article, Rob. Keep them coming.

  4. I guess I’m especially interested in what is going on that is causing untold numbers of children in VT to have mental health and conduct disorders such that they are acting out this way? There’s always been special needs kids with autism and other issues, some of whom attended special classes inside the local school and some who were placed in outside programs? Have these options been reduced? Or are there just way more disturbed children? And I ask why for both questions?

  5. When we as a society tell individuals of particular ethnic/racial groups that they are oppressors and that they should hate themselves because of what their ancestors may have done, that does not contribute to their mental wellbeing…

  6. This is just another example of how our so called legislators are raping our state. When they first stuck their noses in how the towns regulated their budgets and what is taught in them, dangling a carrot under their nose with the reimbursement of special education, years ago, now the towns are expected to take care of all the problems that come with it and more! That being said, you now have parents that don’t discipline their children or teach them respect for anything and will blame the schools when problems arise. This state is in a critical condition not only with our schools but in all aspects of our lives. In point, the overstepping of our Senators getting into the agreement with other states over the questionable new green deal, which leaves us open to being sued if goals aren’t met on time, not to mention the new taxes it will cost Vermoners, to the new rank choice voting that they want to push through before our next Presidential elections! The people are either blind or they just don’t care until it hits their wallets, but by the time it does, the working middle class or what’s left of it in our state will be gone!

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