Christina Rainville, Esq.
Does Vermont Law Allow Vermont’s Education System to Discriminate Against Children with Disabilities Who Want to Attend Publicly-Funded Independent Schools?
Considerable controversy has been generated by the Vermont Board of Education’s proposed rule that would alter Vermont’s system of education by requiring the State’s taxpayer-funded independent schools to accept students with disabilities. However, little attention has been paid to whether Vermont law compels this result. This article concludes that, as a matter of Vermont law, students with disabilities have a legal right to be admitted to and be accommodated in taxpayer-funded independent schools.
Under Vermont’s system of education, towns that do not have public schools at the elementary, middle and/or high school level, provide “choice” by which the town pays a per-pupil stipend for students to select which school they will attend. In practice, this often results in students attending a nearby independent school, which in effect serves as the town’s community school, which is paid from taxpayer-provided funds for each student who attends. Those public payments, based on contracts between the local school board and the independent school, make up the vast majority of many independent schools’ annual funding. Nonetheless, independent schools are free to not accept, or not accommodate, students with disabilities at the school’s absolute discretion.
The result is that students with disabilities who live in towns with a public school at the relevant academic level can be assured of attending school in their communities and receiving required accommodations and/or services. By contrast, students with disabilities who live in towns whose community schools are taxpayer-funded independent schools cannot be so assured.
This differing treatment, created by Vermont’s education system, has profound negative effects on students with disabilities. Children with disabilities whose communities have no public school, and who are denied access to their community independent school, need to travel, by necessity, to schools at significant distance outside their communities, where they have no friends and where it is a hardship for their families to support them. The harm of being forced to attend a geographically-distant school is significant. Children often cannot be involved in sports or after-school activities because of transportation issues, and it is difficult for the children to develop friendships because few parents are able (or can afford) the hours of driving that are required to bring a child to a friend’s house 45 minutes or further away.
But for many children, the worst part is the stigma of knowing that someone in a position of power has, in effect, decided that the child is not “good enough” to attend the taxpayer-funded independent community school, and that sense of shame is re-enforced every time the child drives by the community school, sees a school bus the child is not permitted to be on, or watches a soccer game, from a distance, with children wearing uniforms the child will never be allowed to wear.
In addition, some students with disabilities who want to attend their community independent school may make a difficult decision and chose to forego required accommodations and/or services in order...