Albright: Private School Rules

Jan 19, 2017

I understand, in theory, why the State Board of Education wants more watchdog power over independent schools that educate some students at state expense, if there are no public schools available in those communities. I also get why some private school parents are outraged. But not all the media coverage I’ve seen accurately explains the proposed rule changes.

For example, it’s NOT true that all private school teachers would have to be licensed, under the new rules. That amendment applies only to certifying special education teachers. NOR do the rules force all private schools to hire certified special ed teachers. But if a special education student enrolls in a private program, that program must, with few exceptions, be certified by the state to provide those services - that's reasonable sounding, but possibly onerous in practice.

In fact, when I was an education reporter, I saw students with special needs, and other obstacles to learning, served quite well by independent schools, perhaps because classes tend to be small, affording students individual attention.

At well-attended public hearings on these proposed rule changes, the Board seems to have suggested that private schools accept only smart kids, and that it needs to make sure acceptance criteria are not too selective. But if private schools really did that much cherry picking, they wouldn’t survive - at least, not in the Northeast Kingdom, where I’ve seen little evidence of discriminatory admissions. Quite the opposite.

The Board also wants to approve public spending only for independent schools that appear financially healthy. Yes, it can be hard for small private academies to stay afloat, so if we want to maintain these as viable options for parents and children, the Board of Education should not overwhelm them with unfunded mandates.

The educational marketplace generally works well here, providing enough competition to keep both public and private schools on their toes. And, based on solid criteria, the state’s education board - which, by the way, is appointed, not elected - already has the power to decide whether a private school qualifies for public money.

There’s nothing in the Board’s proposal that explicitly threatens school choice, which many Vermonters value. But that could be the unintended consequence of its rule changes. On the campaign trail, then candidate, now Governor Phil Scott spoke out against them. We’ll soon see how that plays out in the legislature.