Bill requires private schools to enroll special ed students

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MONTPELIER — Legislation approved by the Senate last week would require private schools that accept public tuition dollars to admit special education students and share additional information to show their financial viability.

"It is a civil rights issue," Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said of the special education requirements.

The bill, S.229, has been sent to the House Education Committee for review.

Federal law requires public schools to provide a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment to children with learning disabilities. Whenever possible, these students should go to school with students who aren't disabled and should go to the school closest to their home.

Under the new law, private schools would be required to accept students with an Individualized Educational Program, or IEP, a customized learning plan put together by the school's special education team and parents.

Private schools would also have to provide financial reports proving they have the money and staff to stay open and deliver on their educational commitments. State officials and public and private school representatives spent months negotiating these tighter financial rules.

Randi Kulis, assistant superintendent in Bennington-Rutland, told lawmakers that the changes to special education admissions wouldn't significantly increase the number of students on private school rolls.

"It was frustrating for parents" of special needs children, she said. "They thought they had school choice and then found out their students couldn't go to the school they chose."

The bill requires "local education agencies" to work with private schools and the Agency of Education to find the best placement for a special education student. If that is a private school, and the school is not equipped to serve the student's needs, then the LEA will provide staff and resources at its own cost to support the student for up to nine months. During that interim period, private schools would be expected to contract their own staff.

Public schools pushed back on this provision when the bill was in committee, arguing that their financial and human resources are already stretched thin.

JoAnne Unruh, former head of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, said the organization doesn't think public schools should be expected to provide staff to private schools, even for an interim period.

"I still don't fully understand why there would not be mutual responsibility in finding staff. Public schools have to be staffed up when a child arrives at the door," she said. Making public schools responsible for special education oversight at private schools "complicates things," she added.

Nicole Mace, head of the Vermont School Boards Association, said she would continue lobbying to free LEAs from being tasked with hiring, training, staffing and paying for special education in private schools.

"We look forward to working with the House to address issues we raised in the Senate concerning implementation of S.229 that were not really addressed," she said.

Mill Moore, head of the Vermont Independent School Association, said hiring and the paperwork involved to deliver and document special education services is too burdensome for small private schools, a reality that lawmakers took into consideration when drafting the bill.

"No matter where a student on an IEP is receiving services, the funds must come from and be administered through the public education system," he said. "The notion that after some defined time period the public system might be freed from having to pay for a special education student's services at an approved independent school is incorrect."

As part of shifting some responsibility to private schools, the bill restricts how much private schools can charge school districts for special education services and requires more documentation of services provided and information on how students are progressing.

The bill also sets up new safeguards to protect against unexpected school closures, like that of Burlington College and the Austine School in Brattleboro in 2014. Every five years, private schools have to demonstrate their financial stability in order have their approval renewed by the State Board of Education. The bill gives the board authority to investigate if certain red flags are triggered before schools are up for renewal.

Though the board would be given greater access to financial records, that information would remain protected from the public because the bill exempts private schools from the Public Records Act.

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