A push by the State Board of Education to expand the special-education obligations of independent schools across Vermont has earned it some new enemies in Montpelier, and proposed legislation that would strip the 11-person panel of its century-old role in setting education policy.
The board has played a critical role in executing some of the most consequential education reforms in Vermont history, most recently with the rollout of the school district consolidation law called Act 46.
At the end of their day-long meeting in Barre earlier this week, board members got a round of applause from the audience after approving three new school-district merger proposals.
But the board is enduring some tribulations along with its triumphs. And if some lawmakers have their way, then the board may cease to play any meaningful role in the education system.
“At the current moment, I think the board is attempting to take a good deal of authority unto itself, and I think that’s where part of the clash is coming from,” says Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth.
Baruth is the Democratic-Progressive chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. And that “clash” he’s talking about comes in the form of legislation that’s been introduced in both the House and the Senate this year.
The bills stem directly from public outcry over the state board’s efforts to force independent schools to accept all students, regardless of their special education needs.
Independent schools say the proposed rule would be financially ruinous.
“Honestly, I think the board has gotten out a little over their skis on this one,” Baruth says. “I think the board has an opinion of the range of its authority that is at odds with a good number of senators, at the least.”
The legislation would eliminate the state board’s role in the nominating process for the secretary of education. More importantly, it would strip the board of the considerable rulemaking authority it now has over education policy.
A number of prominent lawmakers say the proposed special-education rules clearly contravene legislative intent. And they say it’s time to take power away from the independent board, and return it to the executive branch.
Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion, a Democrat, is one of the bill’s lead sponsors.
“This is a democracy. This process would make it more democratic," Campion says. "And I think we should hold our governors, now and in the future, responsible for putting out good education policy, and allowing citizens to have that direct line.”
Campion and other critics of the board say that since its members are appointed by the governor, and not elected, they aren’t as responsive to the critiques and concerns of members of the public.
The board’s defenders, meanwhile, say the its insulation from shifting political winds is precisely what makes it such an effective body.
“Education crosses party lines, it crosses demographic sections of Vermont, it crosses a wealth of children and kids in poverty,” says Bristol Rep. Davis Sharpe, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Education. “And it really needs to be as non-partisan as it can be.”
Sharpe says that in his experience, the board is receptive to public input. He notes that the special education rules, for instance, have already been revised to reflect constituents’ concerns. The vote on that revised proposal has been delayed until May.
Take the board out of the mix, Sharpe says, and you leave education policy exclusively in the hands of politically elected branches that fluctuate at the whim of voters.
“And if we allowed these political swings to be reflected in political swings in how we treat schools in this state, whether their public schools or independent schools, that would be unfortunate,” Sharpe says.
“We’re not running for office,” says Krista Huling, the interim chairwoman of the State Board of Education. “I do feel like that gives us a little bit more of an opportunity to step back and look at what’s best for the state, and not just one constituency.”
Bill Mathis, interim vice-chairman of the state board, agrees. Mathis says the board was created in 1918 precisely to avoid the politicization of education policy that had begun to run rampant in Montpelier.
“We have that independence and we have nothing politically to gain to do what we’re doing, so it’s a safeguard against politicism of the educational process,” Mathis says.
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, another leader of the effort to strip the board of its powers, says the board, as constituted today, is hardly free from political influence.
“Within the State Board of Education, clearly the leadership there has concerns about private schools and public money. And I think that’s political too,” Sears says.
Sears isn’t the only one who thinks board members’ are using their authority to undermine independent schools. Sears’ and Campion's district includes Burr and Burton Academy, one of the state's best-known independent schools. .
“If you talk to many of the folks in my district who operate private schools, or the parents who send kids there, it was seen as an attack on school choice,” Sears says.
Baruth will play a lead role in overseeing the debate over the legislation. He says stripping the board of all its powers it probably a bridge too far. But he says the episode between the board and independent schools gives lawmakers good reason to rethink the scope of the board’s authority.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a debate about that, and possibly dialing back a bit on that authority, and clarifying it,” Baruth says.
Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement that the “rulemaking process for the State Board of Education is different from what we see for other boards, so it may be a conversation worth having.”
Scott says “it will be important to fully understand the implications of moving that rulemaking authority before any decisions are made."
Vermont's Choice: Private Schools, Public Money is a six-part series looking at the Vermont independent school system. Check back throughout the week for more from the series.