Vt. lawmakers, advocates grapple with school choice system

Published: Jun. 15, 2023 at 5:59 AM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers say they plan to revisit legislation that aims to deny public school dollars for private school education.

At issue are so-called sending towns, which are towns without an elementary or high school. Historically, students in those towns have been able to choose what school they want to attend and their state per-pupil tax dollars follow them whether that school is public or private, in-state or out-of-state. But that system could be about to change, in part because of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding religious schools.

Bills this past session that sought to deny using public school dollars for private school education never gained traction. However, the state budget includes a ban on adding any more independent schools to the current approved list of private places using public tuition.

The Agency of Education’s annual report shows there are 84,463 publicly funded students in Vermont, roughly 80,000 of which attend public schools. About 3,561 students come from towns without public schools and so are able to attend approved independent schools using taxpayer funds. At least six of those approved independent high schools are religiously affiliated.

The extension of private school choice to religious schools followed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said if Vermont uses public dollars for any private schools, it can’t exclude religious schools. Through a public records request, we learned that at least 53 students enrolled in these religious high schools have their tuition paid with public dollars, at a total cost of almost $600,000.

Members of the Education Equity Alliance—made up of school boards, superintendents, principals and the teachers union—oppose allowing public dollars to go to religious schools.

“We feel that all taxpayer-funded schools must treat both students and staff equitably and free from unlawful discrimination. Education fund dollars should be subjected to the same consistent transparency and accountability standards,” said the alliance’s Nick Odell.

The alliance supported legislation that would have met the Supreme Court standard by eliminating private school choice, except at the four historic academies -- St. Johnsbury, Lyndon, Burr and Burton, and Thetford -- which operate as defacto public schools.

“It was about overreach. It was about ending the system that funds independent schools, it’s about getting more kids, forcing more families back into public schools -- which maybe is what they want -- but it certainly wouldn’t work in a place like the Northeast Kingdom where there aren’t alternatives,” said Brian Bloomfield of the Lyndon Institute.

He says there are already regulations in place to protect students from discrimination at private schools.

“All the other provisions that were in those earlier bills didn’t make it through -- as they shouldn’t have -- because they weren’t going to help students. They weren’t going to help students that are going to help band up beyond what is already in place, which is good,” Bloomfield said.

Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington County, says current laws, including a recently passed moratorium on adding new private schools, are a better way to address concerns about religious schools than dismantling the entire private school choice system.

“The anti-discrimination piece, as well as the moratorium is the best and most effective at this point strategically to keep public dollars away from religious schools. And again, in the coming months in the coming couple next couple of years. We’ll find out if we’ve been successful,” Campion said.

Other lawmakers are pushing for more oversight, trying to balance what happens in school classrooms and taxpayer dollars. House Education Committee Chair Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, says a bill they passed that ultimately stalled in the Senate would have strengthened anti-discrimination requirements for independent schools from rule to statute.

“That system provided some stronger assurances about discrimination and about specific taxpayer responsibility oversight by government. It didn’t ask a lot but it did ask for more from independent schools,” he said.

Lawmakers will revisit these bills next session.

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