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Vermont Lawmakers Want More Say In State Board's New Private School Rules

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The State Board of Education met Tuesday at the Agency of Education in Barre. The board voted to move ahead with its controversial private school rules, even though a legislative committee might be weighing in.

An education bill that's being debated in the Vermont Statehouse could raise some separation of power issues between the legislative and executive branches.

The governor appoints the members of State Board of Education, and the board has the authority to re-write the rules governing private schools.

But there's a bill being discussed in the Statehouse that would set up a legislative committee to make recommendations on the "criteria to be used" by the State Board.

And now the State Board is trying to figure out how to move forward as it seeks to get the new independent school rules in place.

The State Board of Education is proposing broad changes that would force private schools that use state money to admit all kids, even those with disabilities.

And the new rules would also raise the bar on the level of financial disclosure the private schools would have to give the state.

The board started working on these private school rules back in November of 2015, and since then, State Board Chairwoman Krista Huling says the board's received plenty of input.

"We've been getting a lot of different feedback," Huling said at the April board meeting in Barre. "People say we haven't engaged enough people, or that we've engaged too many people. Honestly my head spins sometimes when I hear from different people, some who say, 'I want you to move slower,' and others who say, 'I want you to move faster.' We've been pushed and pulled in all different ways."

The board is ready to take all that feedback and work it into the proposed changes, but now the Legislature wants a seat at the table.

There's an education bill in the House that's already passed the Senate that would set up a 10-member committee to make recommendations on the private school rules.

But if the committee is set up and it's report doesn't come out until early 2018, Huling says the board's work will be pushed even further behind.

"We're an independent board. We've been delegated this authority," Huling says. "But now they're kind of coming back in and taking some of that. So should we anticipate the changes they're going to make, and do we move forward as our own independent body, or wait  until we're told, 'This is what you need to do?'"

Opponents of the new rules have already questioned whether the State Board has the authority to make such sweeping changes on its own.

But back in December, the attorney general's office confirmed that it was in the board's power to rewrite the rules.

Still, at the monthly State Board of Education meeting this week, board member John Carroll said it might make sense for the board to put the brakes on until the legislative committee does its own work.

"The Legislature clearly has a renewed interest in the rules regarding independent schools," said Carroll. "You are not obliged by law to slow down or defer your work. You are permitted to proceed apace as you wish. I'm suggesting to you that it would be prudent to not do so. Maybe even diplomatic."

But the rest of the board wasn't really interested in diplomacy.

"I respect and admire the work of our legislators, and I want to hear their voices, but I think they have a different charge," fellow board member Stacy Weinberger said to Carroll.

And with the AG's opinion firmly in hand, Weinberger said it was up to the governor-appointed State Board — and not the legislators — to take care of the kids in the state.

"They're elected officials," she said. "They have a different mission. They're reporting to different bodies. I would like us to continue with the process that we've started. I don't think stopping serves the intent of our job, which is to provide equity for all the students in Vermont. That's our goal."

The Senate Education Committee wrote the bill that calls for the independent school committee, and the bill was debated in the House Education Committee.

The committee would include the Secretary of Education and lawmakers, as well as representatives from the private and public schools.

The group is tasked with recommending legislation if it thinks the State Board is moving in the wrong direction.

At Tuesday's meeting, the State Board voted to continue hammering out the new rules, while keeping an eye what comes out of Montpelier.


Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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