The State Board of Education is proposing some controversial new rules, which some private school advocates say threaten the very existence of some of these schools. And one of the big issues of contention is special education.
Right now there are private schools that use public money that aren't set up to accept all kids with disabilities. And some members of the state board say that's wrong, and that it needs to change.
St. Johnsbury Academy is the largest independent high school in Vermont. There are about 950 students here, and almost 700 come from the surrounding towns in the Northeast Kingdom.
Even though St. Johnsbury Academy is a private school, through school choice, it acts like the public high school for the region.
The school houses the area's tech center. It supports a sports program. And it has a full special education department, which serves students with disabilities.
St. Johnsbury wouldn't be affected by the new special ed rules, but Headmaster Tom Lovett still has some pretty strong opinions about how the proposed changes would impact smaller schools in his region.
"These rules would not make them better schools," Lovett says.
Vermont has the oldest school choice program in the United States. The school funding law was written in 1869 so kids from small, rural towns could attend one of Vermont's academies, which include Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Lyndon Institute in Lyndon Center and Thetford Academy in the Upper Valley.
Lyndon Institute and St. Johnsbury Academy have also both been serving families in the Northeast Kingdom for about 150 years.
All four of these large, private high schools accept school choice vouchers, and they all have approved special education departments with licensed teachers.
But Lovett says Vermont's smaller independent schools, some of which send kids to St. Jonhsbury, would struggle under the new rules.
He says it doesn't make sense to expect a smaller private school with 100 or so students to have enough staff to accept all students with disabilities.
"To provide special education well, you need a lot of resources and training and commitment," Lovett says. "It's not the kind of thing that every school of every size can do well. So the idea that all schools should be the same, and are able to be of the same quality, I think is misguided."
The State Board of Education says if a school accepts public money it should open its doors to any child in Vermont — including those with disabilities.
But the independent schools are making the argument that when you have a large school like St. Johnsbury serving kids with disabilities, then it paves the way for smaller independent schools to open up nearby and serve a different part of the population.
Mill Moore, director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, says the independent schools work well together and that each has a role to play in educating all of Vermont's children.
"We think they should consider a 'community of care' approach, rather than requiring that absolutely every school do every service," says Moore. "So in a particular region, for example, services for particular disabilities might not be available at all schools, but might be available at the schools best equipped by staff and facilities to address those needs. We're trying to suggest where there's some wiggle room, of course it's up to them to decide whether or not they want to wiggle."
Moore says the state's independent school system works because it allows small, mission-driven schools to operate and serve a slice of the student population.
But disability rights advocates say if even a single Vermont student is shut out of a school, it's one too many.
"We see this as a civil rights issue," says Karen Price, who works with Vermont Family Network, the state's federally designated support and advocacy group for kids with disabilities. "We certainly believe that there should be equity across all the students, and that students with disabilities should not be denied access to an independent school that accepts public funding."
There are independent schools that have over 80 percent of their students paying tuition with public dollars, and which don't admit all kids with special needs.
Price says those schools should be open to any student in the state, regardless of their disability.
"If schools are going to accept public funding they need to abide by the obligations that the dollars come with," Price says. "And in this case, these are the most vulnerable children in our society, and they should not be kept out of these schools. That just isn't right."
When the state board first released the new proposed rules, there was some sloppy wording, and the schools thought they would be required to change their hiring practices.
Since then, the two sides have been hammering out more acceptable provisions around teacher licensing, health and safety expectations and discipline.
State Board of Education member Krista Huling says the board is less likely to budge on the disability issue.
"We're striving to try to make it that any student in the state of Vermont, if they have choice, they have good choices, and they're not being discriminated against because they're special ed students," Huling says. "So what's the best way to do that for independent schools, which do have different rules? Our constituent is Vermont children. And so we can think about what's going to be best for them, and what rules can we create that will create the best opportunities for all of our students."
But the two sides can't seem to come to an agreement about what is best for all of Vermont's students.
Cindy Stanton runs the special ed department at St. Johnsbury Academy. She says St. Johnsbury works with the nearby independent schools, and sometimes a student with special needs ends up at one of the smaller schools.
She points out that the parents help decide where they want their kids to go. And they might choose to send their child to a school that doesn't have official special ed status because it's smaller, or because it offers an alternative learning environment.
"I think that's important to make sure that people are understanding that independent schools can serve kids," she says. "They serve kids, with or without the approval process. These schools are working with those students."
There are a lot of people on both sides of this debate who are watching how this issue plays out.
Once the state board decides just how much oversight they want to see on special education, their proposed rules will go to a legislative committee and a new set of public hearings will open this spring.
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.
Update 5:45 p.m. The State Board of Education has postponed a vote on the proposed rules that would require independent schools to accept all students, regardless of their special-education needs, till May.