Lawmakers Question Ethics Of State Board Member's Stance On School Choice

Jan 3, 2017

Three state lawmakers say a member of the State Board of Education who wants more oversight of private schools might be receiving payments from national education groups to support that work.

The legislators — Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia, Jamaica Rep. Oliver Olsen and Warren Rep. Adam Greshin — sent a letter to State Board Chairman Stephan Morse Monday asking him to look into the work of Bill Mathis, who has served on the State Board of Education since 2011.

Mathis is the managing director for the National Education Policy Center, a nonprofit research group.

In their letter, the lawmakers say the group receives funding from a number of national organizations opposed to school choice, and they want to know if Mathis' opposition to expanded choice is being fueled by that money.

Mathis says the allegations are baseless and politically-motivated.

"If you look at that letter, it is a personal attack," Mathis said. "Look at all nine pages of it and that's where it's going."

The State Board of Education is in the middle of proposing new rules for private schools, and Mathis has been in the middle of the firestorm.

Among other things, the state board is proposing that private schools that use state money increase their financial reporting.

And the board wants those schools to accept more special ed kids.

The state hasn't updated its private school rules since 2001, and Mathis says the board is only doing its job.

"And that's the irony, is that the Legislature has asked us to do this, and then three legislators decide that they don't like what they have legislated," says Mathis.

The letter says the board needs to see if Mathis can "conduct himself in an impartial and independent manner," especially concerning publicly-funded access to private schools.

"These are not trivial questions," says Rep Sibilia, one of the signatories on the letter. "These are actually pretty significant questions about our regulatory board, of one of our largest funded systems in the state of Vermont, and a system that is in the process of major transformation."

The group Mathis works for is based out of the University of Colorado, and Mathis says the university pays his salary.

He says he's never hid his association with the group, and the policy papers he's written are never run by donors.

And while he says there are groups that donate to his organization that oppose school choice, those groups don't have editorial oversight over his work.

Editor's note: Howard Weiss-Tisman's wife works in the Vermont public education system and is a member of the Vermont NEA.