Vermonters who have school choice are pushing back hard on new rules that the State Board of Education is proposing.
The board wants private schools that use state money to accept students with any disability, and the new rules would also require private schools to provide more detailed financial information to the state.
At a state board hearing in Manchester Monday, more than 700 people came out to fight the rule changes, which they said would force unfair demands on private schools that accept public money.
The meeting was held at Burr and Burton Academy, and it was called to let the public weigh in on the draft rule changes.
State Board Chairman Stephan Morse tried to separate the proposed rule changes from the school choice debate.
"There is nothing in these rules that have anything to do with school choice," Morse said at the start of the meeting. "Under the law of the State of Vermont, school choice is decided by the voters of the district. The State Board of Education has no say on whether a district operates a school or offers school choice."
Morse said it was never the board's intention to restrict school choice by passing the new rules, and he said there will be plenty of opportunities to comment during the long rulemaking process.
Morse admitted that the proposed rules were ambiguous in spots, and he said the board will clarify the wording before issuing the final draft.
"Since these rules have become so controversial, the four-person subset of the State Board of Education has been meeting with representatives of the Independent School Association in Vermont," Morse said. "And I think we're making some great progress."
But any progress the board was hoping to make was lost on the hundreds of parents, students and private school employees who filled the Burr and Burton gym.
Steve Harrington has two kids at Long Trail School in Dorset, and he worries that private schools will have less scholarship money available if they have to meet the new requirements.
Harrington said he understood that the new rules weren't proposed to limit school choice, and that students with disabilities should have fair access to an education.
"But to achieve that does not mean stripping a bunch of other people — including my kids — because we're in that razor-thin margin, where if the cost goes up, we're bumped," said Harrington. "I think the school loves our kids and the kids love the school ... But we get bumped, just like a lot of other people will."
Private schools do have to get state board approval if they want to use public money, and the rules that are under review govern that approval process.
The state hasn't updated those rules since 2001, and the controversial amendments came up when the board was working on the changes.
The State Board argues that if private schools get public money than they should be held up to the same state and federal disability laws.
But Alex Lehmann, who's the academic dean at Stratton Mountain School, said the private schools are already serving students with disabilities without the state imposing an additional layer of administrative oversight.
"At Stratton Mountain School, about 12 percent of our students come to us with diagnosed with learning disabilities," he said. "These are children who are often struggling or falling through the cracks in other environments. Over and over again, during the past 18 years, I have seen the combination of physical activity, unique focus and small individualized classrooms prove incredibly effective in helping such students redefine themselves and the possibilities for their futures."
There was some support at Monday night's meeting for the state board's proposed changes.
Nancy Richards works for the Vermont Family Network, an advocacy group that serves families that have children with disabilities.
"Some independent schools have close to 90 percent of their students publicly-funded and can deny access to students because they need special education services," Richards said. "We believe this practice is a violation of the rights of students with disabilities to access the same programs and services available to their non-disabled peers."
But Rep. Oliver Olsen, who's a member the Burr and Burton Board of Trustees, said the state board was using the disability argument to limit school choice around the state.
"Don't be fooled," Olsen said. "This is part of a carefully-orchestrated effort to undermine school choice for purely ideological reasons."
The State Board of Education has been working on the new rules for about a year, and presented the proposed rule changes to the Interagency Committee on Administrative Rules in November.
The committee asked the board to hold public hearings first to get more input.
Once the board finishes a draft for the committee, there will be another series of public comment sessions.