House lawmakers weigh school-choice guardrails

Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 6:54 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Should private and independent schools be limited in the taxpayer dollars they receive? That’s the key question the Vermont House is considering following a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer allowing religious schools to be funded with taxpayer dollars.

A sweeping education bill debated in the House Wednesday would currently puts guardrails on statewide education funds from going to private schools that admit students based on their ability to pay, their academic performance, or whether they’re a ‘good fit.’

“This committee bill says publicly funded students should be educated, not vetted,” said Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall. “No publicly-funded student should ever be made to feel less than worthy from any school that wants to accept public dollars.”

The bill is aimed at making sure public funding doesn’t go to private religious schools as required under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Carson v. Makin, a case in Maine where the court found states can no longer exclude religious schools from receiving public funds.

At issue are students from so-called “sending towns,” or places without schools, where students receive taxpayer vouchers to attend schools elsewhere. For most students, that means the nearest public school, but under state law, it also includes private schools, and now private religious schools.

But some lawmakers are concerned about the current legislation’s potential impact on small, independent schools. “Provisions from this bill would be challenging and potentially crippling,” said Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster.

The bill will eventually land on the desk of Governor Phil Scott, who says he supports independent schools and wants lawmakers to find a balance. “We give kids the best opportunity. Let’s go back to the kids -- what’s best for them?” he said.

But some lawmakers say the current bill still does not solve the fundamental religion issue raised by Carson v. Mackin, and that public dollars are still flowing to religious instruction in some private schools. Lawmakers are looking at addressing these concerns in the coming weeks ahead.

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