Ruling has more Vt. families considering religious schools for their kids

Published: May. 7, 2021 at 6:03 PM EDT|Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 7:33 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - A recent state ruling has more Vermont families considering religious schools for their kids.

Based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, the State Board of Education says public tax dollars can be used for students attending religiously affiliated private schools.

There are 111 school districts in Vermont. Of those, 44 do not offer some level of schooling, like a high school. They are called tuitioning districts because they pay other schools tuition to take their students.

Usually, this means families choose among a short list of nearby public schools. But the law also allows tuition to be directed to private schools. The money has never applied to religious schools, but that is now changing.

“It’s been a new game-changer for these families,” said Lisa Lorenz, the principal and president of Rice Memorial High School.

Since hearing about the board of education ruling requiring districts to pay school choice tuition to religious schools, more families are showing interest in Rice, a Catholic school in South Burlington.

Rice officials say about 10 families are thinking about making the switch. A few have already signed up.

“There are a lot of families who I have known over the years tell me, ‘I could never come to Rice because I can’t afford to pay the tuition and it just wasn’t an opportunity.’ So they have had to choose the public school systems and they really wanted to be here,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz says there are already 17 families with students at Rice who are from tuitioning towns. She says many of those families are going back to their districts asking for tuition payments.

But that board of education ruling may not provide a clear-cut path to those tuition dollars.

“I will do what I have to do to do the right thing for my son,” said Michael Valente of Mount Holly.

Valente is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit trying to force the state to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the religious school issue. His son, Dominic, is a sophomore at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland.

The Mount Holly family is part of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union which does not have a high school.

The Valente family chose to send Dominic to the Catholic school because of his hearing issues and its convenience to his father’s office.

The lawsuit is still pending because the tuition money has yet to be paid.

“The Two Rivers Supervisory Union agreed to pay. How much and the details are still being worked out,” Valente said.

While the board of education said districts have to pay, how much is still an issue. The board of education ruling says school districts could ask the schools to “certify that public tuition payments will not be used to fund religious instruction or religious worship.”

Valente’s attorney argues you cannot separate the religious practices from the tuition price.

“They will not be able to get tuition for next year unless they can somehow guarantee that this money won’t be used for religious instruction and that’s crazy,” said Erica Smith, an Institute for Justice attorney.

Valente ultimately hopes everyone can get an education that benefits them.

“I want everyone to have the ability to have the money follow them and go where they believe their best education can be,” he said.

The Virginia-based Institute for Justice is currently suing the state of Vermont, saying preventing tuition money from going to religious schools is unconstitutional.

The state is not commenting.

This case is ongoing and we will continue to follow it.

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