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Education Board Defers To Lawmakers In Conflict Over Special Ed. In Private Schools

Howard Weiss-Tisman/VPR
Members of the State Board of Education held a public hearing in Manchester in 2016 to talk about new rules that impact private schools.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday voted to suspend its rulemaking around how approved independent schools admit students with disabilities.The board first raised the issue more than two years ago when it began looking at how some private schools were denying access to some students who need special education services.

Thedebate became heated, with the schools saying their very existence would be threatened if they lost the public money, while disability advocates argued that it was a cut-and-dried civil rights issue.

The state board was unable to work through the emotional debate and chairwoman Krista Huling says the board voted this week to suspend its own process.

"The Legislature said that they wanted to address this so we're going to give  them time," Huling says. "At at this point we are not initiating rulemaking, and we are waiting for the Legislature to have their turn."

Some Vermont school districts have limited school choice, allowing families to take public money and use it to pay for private schools that are approved by the state.

The larger private schools have special education departments, and they admit students with disabilities, but some of the smaller private schools say they don't have the resources to enroll students with the most severe needs.

A legislative committee met through the fall to try to hammer out a new framework but the two sides were still unable to reach consensusaround issues like financial transparency, and how the special education services would be paid for.

"The study committee was not able to get much traction," Huling said. "The report that they issued did not offer any real direction, and there was concern on the state board that there was no consistent message. We realize that it's a very hard issue and we feel like the Legislature will benefit by seeing the struggle that the committee went through."

The debate will now move into the House and Senate education committees.                                          
Huling says the state board will continue to study the issue, and gather data on how approved independent schools are providing special education services.

She also expects members of the board to testify in the upcoming hearings.


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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