S.91: An Act Relating to Public Funding of Some Approved Independent Schools

Photograph by Andrew Lipsett
Photograph by Andrew Lipsett

LiHigh School is a state-approved independent school, which means we’ve submitted and received approval on our written application to the Vermont Agency of Education and undergone an on-site visit and review of our organization, curriculum, facilities, staff qualifications, student health and safety, and financial qualifications. It also means we’ve been approved by the state to receive tuition from public funds. There are close to 130 independent schools in Vermont, serving roughly 9,500 students throughout the state.

On February 8th, Senators McCormack (Democrat, Windsor), Collins (Democrat, Franklin), Sears (Democrat, Bennington), and Zuckerman (Progressive, Chittenden) introduced S.91: An Act Relating to Public Funding of Some Approved Independent Schools. The Senate referred the bill to the Committee on Education, which McCormack chairs and on which Collins and Zuckerman both serve (there are only five members on the committee, and three of them sponsor this bill).

The purpose of the bill is to force approved independent schools that receive tuitions from public funds to be approved for special education in at least four categories (and be able to arrange services in any other category), to maintain a “blind admissions policy” for all publicly funded students (i.e., accepting for admission on a space-available basis), to provide free and reduced-price meals to enrolled students, to employ licensed teachers and administrators, and to take all the standardized tests required by the State, with results reported to the Education Agency.

The Vermont Independent Schools Association released a statement arguing, “These proposals would fundamentally alter the relationship between the State and independent schools that has prevailed since the public education system was introduced shortly after the Civil War.”

Here at LiHigh, our response to S.91 is that these proposals are unnecessarily burdensome to independent schools, and they would not just fundamentally alter our relationship to the State, but they would also fundamentally alter the very core of who we are and do irreparable harm to the very things that make us an attractive alternative to public schools.

While we oppose all of the major changes to S.91 in their entirety, the proposals that do the most damage to our school are the requirements to employ licensed teachers and administrators, to provide free and reduced-price meals, and to take all the standardized tests required by the State, with results reported to the State (this also goes for students whose families are paying tuition out of their own pocket, not just students who pay via public funds).

While we support the education and licensure of a professional teacher class, we also believe that there are highly qualified adults and mentors who possess the appropriate skills and wisdom to work closely with students without having jumped through all the mandated hoops required to attain their teacher’s license. In addition, because of the holistic nature of our program, the State’s requirement that all licensed teachers also receive an endorsement for a specific grade level and academic field (i.e., Grades 7-12 English, Grades 9-12 Mathematics, etc.) has no real relation to what we do here. Our students don’t attend math or English classes, per se. Instead, they participate in skill-building workshops and Socratic seminars that engage with a topic from a variety of perspectives at once. Our advisors don’t necessarily need an endorsement to be effective; in fact, the specialized nature of an endorsed-teacher’s knowledge base sometimes dampens their ability to explore the multiple layers of meaning present in any educational moment.

What’s more, with our focus on internships, students are exposed to professionals in their fields of interest, professionals who they see almost as often as they see their advisor. These professionals are not certified educators, but their knowledge and skills, honed through real-world experiences, make them ideal mentors for our students. S.91 won’t effect our students’ access to mentors, but the very fact that we — and the Agency of Education — value professional mentors runs counter to the theory that all educators need their state licensure to be effective.

The bill’s proposal that all approved independent schools must provide free and reduced-meal lunches is well intentioned, but it provides a heavy burden to a school such as ours, where our physical plant includes no place for food preparation (outside of a microwave) and where our student population is too small to make it worthwhile for a local restaurant to offer reduced-price meals to our students. We do, however, have a dining area for students to use for brown bag lunches, and our community includes several low-cost (but not reduced-price) meal options, which is why, over the course of our existence, we haven’t had a single complaint from students or parents about the mealtime options at LiHigh School. To compel us to provide lunch for our students would force us to make adjustments to our physical plant, and that’s just not an option at this point.

While we can understand and respect the reasoning behind the previous proposals, the bill’s requirement that all of our students (regardless of the private or public source of their tuition) participate in ineffective, demeaning, anxiety inducing, superficial, and unauthentic standardized-assessment procedures is an anathema to our very mission as a school.

We have three pillars that support everything we do here. The first is the holistic nature of our Learning Goals, which asks students to develop five different ways of thinking about any given subject. The second is our commitment to Learning Through Interests and Internships, which builds knowledge, understanding, and skills through the context of real work that starts with the passions and interests of the student.

Our third pillar is our belief in Authentic Assessments, which asks students to exhibit their learning in front of their peers, parents, advisors, mentors, and the greater community, to defend their work to a panel made up of their parents and advisors, to reflect on their work through daily journals, and to receive a multi-page narrative evaluation from their advisor that assesses their development over the course of their LiHigh career. With the inclusion of the student’s mentor on the Learning Plan Team, assessments also come from professional individuals who are all highly educated in their field of expertise (despite not being licensed teachers) and who hold the student to the same real-world standards that the student will face after graduation.

Students who are assessed through standardized testing are only assessed on one thing: how well they take standardized tests, which, after they graduate from high school, will be something they never have to do again. Students who are assessed through exhibitions, portfolios, and narrative evaluations, on the other hand, are being assessed on the depth of their understanding, the quality of their work over time, and the development of their learning in relation to their unique history.

We stand by our assessment procedures; in fact, we hold them up as a model for other schools to follow. To have the State compel us to add intellectually meaningless and bureaucratically onerous standardized tests to our assessment methods would absolutely kill our ability to provide an innovative and progressive education to students whose families have chosen LiHigh School over a public school (with the public school’s standardized assessments being a large motivator for that choice).

We oppose these changes to the independent school system being proposed in S.91, and we ask parents, educators, and students who share our views to share your opinion with your state senator.