On December 21, 2016

New state board of ed rule threatens private schools

Dear Editor,

I am a proud product of Vermont public schools. I was raised in North Pomfret, Vt., and attended a series of one-room schoolhouses, serving students from kindergarten to fifth grade. Most of our schools (there were four) had fewer than 14 students per building spanning several grade levels. One teacher working with an aide met the needs of this diverse group of students, and I have found that my early education in Pomfret was foundational in my growth as a student and educator. I also graduated from the University of Vermont and was a member of its Alpine ski team from 1991 to 1995, helping the Catamounts win two national championships.
For the past 15 years, I have been the head of school at the Killington Mountain School, a private ski academy in Killington, Vt. I am also the president of the Vermont Alpine Racing Association and represent over 3,000 current VARA members at the state, regional and national levels.
Vermont has a rich history and tradition of ski racing and winter sports competition, consistently producing some of the best ski racers in the world, as well as Olympic gold medalists in snowboard, Alpine racing, cross country. These results would not be possible without the Vermont ski academy.
All of our schools are state-approved independent schools, and most have accreditation from outside agencies, including the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The state approval status is critically important to our institutions, as it lends an additional measure of legitimacy and approval, which helps reassure those families who will be making huge sacrifices and a tremendous commitment to educating their children at our schools. I am speaking from experience: prior to receiving NEASC accreditation, the state approval status was instrumental in our ability to attract and enroll countless families from Vermont, across the country and from around the world.
The state Board of Education states that its intent is not to harm independent schools, nor to interfere with school choice. Yet serious questions remain about the truth of this statement.
What is true is that the board’s proposed draft rule series 2200 will threaten independent schools’ approval status. The rules, as proposed, also threaten the independence of independent schools. Proposed draft rule series 2200 will impose a serious financial burden on the school to comply with the new rules or risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue, and it will impose unprecedented oversight and regulation on independent schools.
Recently, the board produced a position paper to clarify the intent of the proposed draft rules for the state Board of Education rule series 2200. In this paper, the board justified its requirement that independent schools submit to a full financial review: “A financial collapse will place the school in the state’s hands, at potentially significant costs.”
This statement makes me question the state Board of Education’s knowledge and understanding of independent schools, the very schools that it is proposing to “help.” The board wants to have full oversight and approval of an independent school’s finances in order for a school to achieve approved independent school status, and thus become eligible to receive public funds from school-choice towns. If my school, the Killington Mountain School, was forced to close because of financial capacity issues, the state of Vermont would have zero stake or financial responsibility to continue the operation of KMS. Yet the board’s statement leads the public to believe, incorrectly, that our independent school would continue to operate at the expense of the state, and therefore should give up independence and financial responsibility to a government agency that has zero obligation to our families or stake in the history, tradition and continued operation of our school. This may be an oversight on the part of the board, but it is a false and misleading justification, and needs to be addressed by the board.
Listening to testimony on Tuesday night, Dec. 13, in Manchester, I was struck by the handful of people who made the argument in favor of the proposed draft rule series 2200. Their argument framed this as a civil rights issue, using the rhetorical argument that if Vermont independent schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of disabilities, what’s to stop them from discriminating on the basis of race, or color, or sexual orientation?
Certainly, nobody on either side of the issue can argue with a desire to protect the civil rights of all students in the state of Vermont. But let’s be clear: currently, federal law prohibits exactly this type of discrimination, and none of our independent schools in Vermont is guilty of doing so. Our schools do not discriminate on the basis of physical or learning disabilities, among others. But we are mission-driven and independent. The board’s position paper stated that: “Open enrollment policies ensure that state resources are used to create institutions that are equally accessible to all of the public.”
How can our specialized schools fulfill our missions if we are forced to take any and all students who apply? How will we remain fiscally viable if we are also required by these rules to provide for any educational or physical service that they may need? Our schools will lose their independence and our adherence to mission. Any of us who survive will become de facto public schools. Suggesting that we can forgo public funds and approved status and remain viable is disingenuous and misleading. The board must acknowledge that this proposed draft rule series 2200 is about two things: threatening our viability and independence via withholding financial resources (money) and school-choice, period.
Our largest population source of students has historically been Vermonters. KMS attracts a variety of Vermont students from school-choice and non-school-choice towns. This year we have eight out of 85 total students who are from school-choice towns, accounting for gross revenues of almost $100,000. KMS gives away close to $500,000 per year in financial aid, a majority of which goes to Vermont families.
Implementing proposed draft rule series 2200 will have a negative and potentially disastrous impact on our ability to function. We simply do not have the elasticity in the market to increase pricing to implement the changes as written. Nor do they seem necessary to the function of KMS.
Our student-to-faculty ratios are 2-to-1, which is incredible but necessary to support these students in their academic and athletic pursuits. Even without special-education certification, we provide a similar level of support via a 1-to-4 student-to-teacher ratio whenever necessary.
We more than meet the needs of our students, and do so in a nontraditional way. Our methods and educational outcomes are effective. KMS sends 100 percent of its students on to college or a national team, and we have recently received college placement acceptances at UVM, Champlain, Castleton, and Middlebury College, to name a few. Bucking state trends, our graduates are choosing to stay in Vermont.
On the other hand, if we give up our approved status, our school will lose nearly $100,000 in revenue. To maintain current enrollment levels, KMS would have to add an additional $100,000 to our financial aid allotment, or make $100,000 in cuts. This is the equivalent of three full-time teaching faculty, out of a total of 10. If we have to make these cuts, we will not be able to provide a similar high quality education for our students. This will further impact other families’ decisions to enroll their children at KMS, further hurting our school’s viability.
Additionally, if these local Vermont families do not receive school-choice funding, they likely won’t be able to afford KMS, so our potential financial loss deepens. At $36,000 per day student, a loss of eight potential students equates to a $280,000 hit to our budget. This is irreplaceable, and our capacity to exist would be further threatened.
This is not a choice that we should be forcing well-functioning schools to make. By attempting to make independent schools just like public schools, the state Board of Education threatens to undermine the rich history of school choice in Vermont. Forcing successful schools such as KMS to choose between losing Vermont approved status or face financial ruin is not in the best interests of Vermont and is students. Implying that our schools are discriminatory in our admissions process is disingenuous at best — all schools are bound by federal law that we will not discriminate. KMS, however, is mission-driven, and has enrollment policies that are designed to help match the right child with the right school.
The board-proposed revision 2200, if implemented, will make changes that will challenge the viability of an important component of our state’s fiscal, cultural and educational heritage.
I ask the state Board of Education to please reconsider the sections of its proposal and rules that will adversely affect Vermont independent schools. Individually and combined, our institutions provide a vital and vibrant component of the overall educational health of the state, and create excellent opportunities for education for countless Vermont students.

Tao Smith, head of  KMS and president of Vt. Alpine Racing Association

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