Bill would limit public dollars in religious schools

Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 6:24 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A bill up for a vote this week in the Vermont Senate could limit how public school dollars would follow students to private religious schools.

Lawmakers are looking to maintain school choice in Vermont-- both public and independent-- while also maintaining a separation of church and state.

There are dozens of school choice towns in the state. They are towns without high schools that give students a voucher to apply at a school of their choosing, public or private.

A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling also opened that door to religious schools. But under Vermont case law, that must include safeguards from religious instruction.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t teach them history of religions class, but you can’t use them to promote a certain religion, used for religious services, things like that. So that’s really the compromise that we landed on,” said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington County.

Campion’s bill would also require that these schools are prohibited from denying services or accommodations to anyone, like based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“There will be some schools that say, ‘Hey, OK, we’re not going to take public dollars.’ There may be a few religious schools in the state. There are a couple that could also say or a few that say, ‘Listen, we agree,’” Campion said.

The Vermont Independent Schools Association, which counts religious schools among its members, says the bill provides more clear direction for school choice.

“Every school district has to work out work this out on its own. They’ve been given no guidance from the Agency of Education. So each district has to consult with its own attorney and figure things out on its own,” said Mill Moore of the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

Critics, like former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe, worry out-of-state religious schools won’t be bound by the bill’s religious restrictions. She also thinks Vermont should wait on a current Supreme Court case in Maine on whether religious schools are eligible for public funds.

“By moving quickly ahead of the decision in that case, we’ve put ourselves at risk and could find ourselves even more hampered down the road,” Holcombe said.

But with choice communities already receiving requests for vouchers to go to religious schools, Campion says the time to act is now.

“We don’t know what the future is going to bring on these cases,” he said. “What we’re trying to do right now is to protect taxpayer dollars, as well as protect kids and faculty and staff. And it’d be bad policy to make decisions anticipating what future decisions might be.”

I reached out to numerous religious schools to get their reaction, some declined to comment or were not available on Monday. Others did not get back to me before this story was published.

I also reached out to the Alliance Defending Freedom which has brought lawsuits on behalf of Vermont parents seeking vouchers to religious schools. That group also declined to comment.

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