State Representative Helen Head from Chittenden has proposed a bill this session, H.267, that could have a dramatic impact on LiHigh School’s future. The stated purpose of the bill is “to prohibit public funding of independent schools.”
Under the current law, if a Vermont school district does not maintain an elementary, middle, or high school, the residents in that district can vote to give their students school choice. Students are able to select from a variety of public schools, state-approved independent schools, or even schools outside of the state. In order to choose the independent schools, the students must first convince the school board that their unique educational needs cannot be satisfied by a nearby public school. The tuition for the school is then paid at the lowest possible cost, with guidelines as to how that cost is determined but not exceeding the average per pupil tuition for its other resident students.
Rep. Head’s bill would remove that choice from families, forcing students to attend a nearby public school regardless of how that school fits with the student’s needs.
On her personal website, Rep. Head points to a June 2017 article in Pro Publica as reasoning for her bill. Titled “Voucher Program Helps Well-Off Vermonters Pay for Prep School at Public Expense,” the article highlights a well-off family that sends their children to two out-of-state private schools at an expense of $15,000 per year to the town. While there is a public school in a nearby town, the father of the family said, “Unfortunately, public schools are left dealing with the lowest common denominator and that leaves high-performing kids like mine in a tough place. You do the best you can for your kids. I can do this and so I do.”
According to the article, “Vermont paid more than $40 million in vouchers to more than 60 private schools last year, including more than $1.3 million to out-of-state schools.” One of those in-state schools was ours.
The article goes on to focus on the income disparity between the families that benefit from vouchers and those that do not, arguing that, because the vouchers don’t cover the full tuition of most private schools, families with a lower economic-status are not able to benefit from them: they can’t afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the final tuition cost.
This is a valid observation, but here at LiHigh School, we don’t charge families above and beyond what is paid for by their towns, so this particular point doesn’t apply to us.
The Pro Publica article connects the debate within Vermont with the education policies being promoted by President Trump’s administration. Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has long argued for providing vouchers to low-income students and letting families choose where to send their children.
One of the problems that Rep. Head and others have with public funding for state-approved independent schools is the fact that some independent school exclude students with special needs. There may be very good reasons for some schools to deny students with special needs, but LiHigh School doesn’t follow this practice. In fact, the vast majority of our students come to LiHigh School specifically for our special education model, which is designed to service students who have been diagnosed with emotional and/or behavioral disorders.
But if Rep. Head’s bill is passed by the state legislature, it won’t matter. It won’t matter that we don’t require our families to pay out of pocket, and it won’t matter that we serve special education students. With this as a new law, towns would no longer be allowed to fund the education received by our students.
There are reasons why all of our students do not go to public schools. For our special ed. students, those reasons might include past trauma in a public classroom, expulsion from multiple schools, or an inability to receive equal access to their education due to administrative malpractice. For our general ed. students, those reasons might include a history of failure when forced to conform to the “one size fits all” model of public education. It might include a desire to expand one’s education beyond the subjects that can be measured by a standardized test. It might include a desire for real-world learning opportunities in one’s learning plan or to take advantage of online educational opportunities.
Regardless, the students who come to LiHigh School come for a reason, and they benefit from our educational model in ways that will reward the communities that help pay for them.
As a member of the Progressive Party of Vermont, I find it difficult to agree with President Trump’s administration on anything and equally difficult to go against my party’s platform, which “stands opposed to federal and state efforts to undermine public schools through…vouchers and charter schools.”
But as the Operations Manager here at LiHigh, I understand the process the school has to go through to receive “state-approved” status as an independent school. We’re required to submit a lengthy application to the state every five years that details not only our philosophy and staff qualifications, but also our financial health as a business and a “minimum course of study” that includes basic communication skills; citizenship, history, and government in Vermont and the U.S.; physical education and comprehensive health education; English, American, and other literature; the natural sciences; and the fine arts.
In addition, as a school that services students with special education needs, the State Board of Education has to determine whether our staff, programs, and facilities meet state and federal special education standards.
This minimum course of study (and the special ed. requirements) are shared by ALL of the public schools in Vermont. The difference is that, as an independent school, we are not beholden to the decisions of a school board. This gives us the freedom to make improvements whenever we see fit. When new research suggests a need to change our theories and/or praxis, we are able to turn on a dime. And when our students and teachers tell us that something needs to be revised, we can respond. We don’t have to wait for five or six people who don’t even work in the schools to give us their approval, nor do we require the teacher’s union to sign off on an innovative idea.
The state of Vermont has plenty of oversight of independent schools such as ours. The fact that we are “approved” by the state says it all. Representatives from the Agency of Education have read our applications, visited our classrooms, spoke with our staff and students, and reviewed our financial books, and everything they found told them that we are qualified to enact our mission and satisfy the state’s education requirements.
The system, as it stands, is not broken. Rep. Head and the rest of the legislature should not try to fix it.