Last year, about $43 million in public money was spent on private schools by families using school choice in Vermont. Now, the State Board of Education says it wants more oversight on how Vermont's independent schools are using public funds.
And while Vermonters are used to thumbing through their town reports to see how their local schools are spending money, independent schools have a much lower bar when reporting their finances.
Vermont has one of the most unique school choice systems in the country: If a town doesn't have a school, families can take their public education money and use it at a private school outside of their district, and even out of state.
Vermont and Maine are the only two states that allow that.
And Vermont's school choice option has given rise to a hybrid public-private system, where some schools are taking in millions of dollars with very little state or local oversight of how the money's being spent.
Sean-Marie Oller is on the State Board of Education, and she says if private schools accept the public money, they need to open up their books a little bit more.
"The board is looking for a little more accountability and transparency," Oller says. "We don't want to pull apart what they're spending, but we need to make sure that they're fiscally viable to continue, and that they're using the funds for the education of the students."
Private schools that want to accept school choice students have to be approved by the State Board of Education. And the board is proposing changes to the rules that govern that approval process.
Currently independent schools are under no obligation to share financial information, even though some of the larger ones receive millions of public tax dollars each year.
And at some private schools, over 80 percent of the students use public money to pay their tuition.
Nicole Mace is director of the Vermont School Boards Association, and she says if private schools choose to take in state funds, there should be some level of oversight.
"We need to be asking hard questions about how we're spending our resources," Mace says. "We need to know if the public money is being spent in a way that's delivering results for students, communities and taxpayers."
So the board is trying to come up with rules that work for all of the independent schools.
At a recent meeting the board and the independent schools struggled to define terms like “reasonable cause” and “financial capacity.”
The overarching debate is about just how much power Vermont’s education secretary should have to look deeper into a school’s finances, and how much extra work the independent schools need to do satisfy the state.
Smaller, specialized independent schools
Some of the independent schools are also accredited by a national education association, and the State Board might be willing to use those accreditations as evidence of financial stability.
But there’s a wide range of schools with different missions. Some are large; some are small. Some of them take in hundreds of thousands of state dollars, and some use much less.
Mosaic Learning Center has small schools in South Burlington and Morrisville, and the school educates about a dozen kids with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Elizabeth Novotny is an attorney who’s helping Mosaic Learning give the board input on the new rules. Novotny says a small school like Mosaic doesn’t have the money for an annual audit.
"To require an audit, yearly, would be cost prohibitive," Novotny says. "They run, and could run, up to $10,000 a year. And in a school that provides special education services only, there isn't a lot of room in a budget. So where does it comes from? And is it necessary?"
Larger private schools
But even with the larger schools, the State Board says the current rules don’t provide adequate financial oversight.
Salaries for the headmasters at Vermont's largest independent schools far outpace principals — and even superintendents — who work in the public system.
St. Johnsbury Academy Headmaster Tom Lovett made a little more than $337,000 in 2014, and at Burr and Burton Academy, Headmaster Mark Tashjian was paid about $231,000 the same year, with benefits included.
And as Vermont's enrollment continues to fall, both public and private schools are scrambling to fill their classrooms with students.
"We have a shrinking population, and that means the competition for those kids and that money is just going to be increasing," says Brad James, of the Agency of Education."I think that's also part of what's driving this conversation. It's making it tougher for everybody. And it's probably a little easier for the public schools. Because they'll get their money regardless, tax rates will go up. But it's a little bit harder for the independent schools, because if they don't have kids coming in the door, they don't have funding."
The State Board says it wants to make sure that every school remains viable, and that the state dollars that are invested year in and year out are well spent.
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.