Roper: The right to an ‘appropriate’ education

By Rob Roper

It has been a long-time goal of the public school special interests to regulate Vermont independent schools that accept students (and taxpayer dollars) from tuitioning towns, and with luck, from the perspective of the public schoolers, driving them out of business. A summer study committee looking into such regulations met on Monday to explore the possibilities.

RELATED: Independent and public education leaders close to special education deal

Technically, the most interesting insight came from legislative counsel, Jim DesMarais, who testified that there is no legal or constitutional right for students with disabilities to attend independent schools that take taxpayer dollars. However, Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), who chairs the committee, declared DesMarais’ findings moot, and that the committee would proceed as if such a right does exist.

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

“We’re here to determine ‘how’, not ‘whether’” to regulate the independent schools, said Baruth. This is disappointing, though, in fairness, Baruth does seem genuinely interested in finding a compromise that preserves independent schools’ ability to exist.

Philosophically, the most interesting issue touched upon (but not specifically discussed) surrounds the mission of providing “appropriate” education. The guarantee is that every child receives a “Free, APPROPRIATE, Public Education.”

Independent schools are under criticism for being mission driven and, as such, showing a preference for students who “fit” with that mission. The accusation is that students who don’t “fit” are unfairly excluded. However, another way of defining the word “fit” is “appropriate.”

Independent schools have a process for determining whether or not the educational opportunities they offer are appropriate for each individual child’s learning needs. To admit a child who does not fit would, by definition, violate the principle of providing an appropriate education for that child. Kids are diverse, and one size does not work for all. What is appropriate for one child may not be for another. Independent schools recognize this fact and have mechanisms in place to make sure children are appropriately placed (or at least not inappropriately place in their institutions).

Public schools do not. It is simply assumed that a public school provides an appropriate learning environment. But is this really the case?

The standard for determining “appropriate,” according to Jo-Anne Unruh, executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, is the presence of a licensed teacher. This is not, however, a child-centered approach to determining “appropriate;” it is purely bureaucratic. It is also hard to reconcile the assumption that licensed teachers in public school are providing appropriate learning environments for all kids when so many Vermont students score below proficiency levels on standardized tests.

The public school bureaucracy whines that independent schools should play by the same rules they do. Perhaps public schools should be forced to adopt some of the policies of independent schools, such as a means of determining if an assigned public school is really an appropriate learning environment for each individual child, and, if not, making sure these kids gets the opportunity to go someplace that is appropriate. Someplace where they do, in fact, “fit.”

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

4 thoughts on “Roper: The right to an ‘appropriate’ education

  1. The best way to deal with these studies that have a predefined goal is to push in the opposite direction. If the left is really a friend to the low income, then they should support something like this program we have in VA (and is also in other states) : http://www.vataxcreditscholarship.com/ It is exciting to me to be able to both help expand opportunity for students and also reduce the education tax burden. This is a win – win.

  2. Since no parent is absolutely required to send his/her child to an independent school, whether or not that particular school provides a form of “special education,” makes to focus of this summer study committee superfluous. If a child needs some form of special ed, then by all means, a public school may be the appropriate place for that child to be educated.

    As both Rob and Jay point out, the sole intent of Sen. Baruth and Bill Mathis (don’t forget Bill) in forming this so-called “study”, however it may be camouflaged, is to try to eliminate independent schools in Vermont so there won’t be any competition for public schools to maintain or upgrade a high quality of teaching by all members of the Vermont NEA. Plain and simple.

    Any questions?

  3. Re: “Independent schools have a process for determining whether or not the educational opportunities they offer are appropriate for each individual child’s learning needs.”

    Rob, this may be the case, but your citation misrepresents the point being discussed by the study committee. Specifically, must an independent school accepting publically funded tuition agree to provide services to any special needs student or risk losing its approval to accept tuition for regular education services as well?

    Follow the money. There’s more to this exercise than meets the eye.

    First of all, under the law, it is not a given school, public or independent, that is charged with determining what a ‘free and appropriate education’ (FAPE) is for any disabled student. Technically, even the school district in which the child resides doesn’t have that authority. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that authority rests solely with the disabled student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) team and how those team members are appointed makes all the difference.

    For example, while an IEP team ostensibly advocates for the student’s best interest, often, parents of special needs students tell us that a school district’s special education department, acting as a Local Education Agency (LEA), will ‘stack’ an IEP team with members sympathetic to the school’s teachers and administrators, not the parents.

    On the other hand, as inconvenient as it may be to parents, they do have the right to appeal and ‘stack’ the IEP team with members sympathetic to their sensibilities. Unfortunately, most parents acquiesce to the school district special education department because they have neither the time, expertise or resources to be effective. More often, parents who can will simply do what it takes (spend their own money) to enroll their child elsewhere.

    Now you see how complicated this process can be? And that’s by design. But again, it’s not the crux of what the study committee is considering. Again, follow the money.

    The question isn’t whether or not an IEP team can require any school, public or private, to provide services the school isn’t prepared to provide, but why the student’s IEP team would choose an unprepared school in the first place, public or independent? And why would any independent school chosen by an IEP team not agree to develop a program to accept any special needs student in the first place? After all, the school district in which the student resides has to pay the cost, not the independent school.

    What this negotiation (I mean ‘study’) is all about is where the money goes. Anything the public school establishment can do to limit the tuition dollars sent to independent schools, not only for special education services but for regular education services as well, translates into more money for the public school establishment. In this case, clearly, their tactic is to obfuscate, and it appears to be working.

    • Jay, This is not only independent schools, there is also the fight to get students and appropriate education at the Technical Centers which are publicly funded.

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