Committee Seeks Compromise On How Private Schools Serve Students With Disabilities

Aug 17, 2017

A legislative committee has been meeting this summer to try to figure out how private schools that take public money should serve special education students.

Passions ran high on both sides of the issue when the State Board of Education began talking about whether private schools that use school choice vouchers should have to accept all kids with disabilities

During the last legislative session, lawmakers put the contentious debate on hold and set up the Approved Independent Schools Study Committee to try to come up with a plan that both sides can live with.

"Our charge as a committee says that we will figure out how the independents will deliver special ed, rather than whether they will," says Chittenden County Sen. Philip Baruth, chairman of the 10-member committee. "So we're looking for new responsibilities for the independents and trying to figure out a way that we can do that that will work for them and that will provide the free and appropriate education for the students who qualify for that."

When the State Board of Education held public hearings, hundreds of people came out to support independent schools. But advocates for disability rights and public schools say if the private schools take public money, they should have to play by the same rules.

Baruth says he hopes the full legislative committee can agree on language that puts the issue to rest.

"We're not going to turn it back to the State Board and have them go off in a direction that might produce more and more controversy," he says. "So my hope is that everybody will see that this is coming to an end, and everybody begins to work toward a solution that's best for kids and that they can live with, if not be ecstatic about."

"My hope is that everybody will see that this is coming to an end, and everybody begins to work toward a solution that's best for kids and that they can live with, if not be ecstatic about." — Sen. Philip Baruth, Approved Independent Schools Study Committee chairman

Baruth says the committee might consider a regional model that allows some private schools to reject certain categories of disabilities if another nearby school serves that specific disability.

Bonnie Johnson-Aten is on the State Board of Education and also serves on the legislative committee. Johnson-Aten says she's not sure just how far her fellow State Board of Education members might be willing to bend on that issue.

"Vermont is committed to having all kids in a free and appropriate education and so this one is a concern," says Johnson-Aten. "I hope that the compromise is not at the expense of the education of our kids."

The committee's report is due before Dec. 1.