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.
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.
“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.”