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Reporter Debrief: Should Public Funds Go To Vt. Independent Schools?

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Nina Keck
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VPR File
The Barstow Unified Union School Board recently floated the idea of limiting school choice to public schools. Residents rejected the proposal.

When it comes to education, should public money go to non-public schools? A school board in Rutland County recently posed this question, and it’s not the first time — or the last — this issue has been debated in Vermont or elsewhere. It’s come up in communities and courts at the local, state, and federal levels.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with reporter Anna Van Dine. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: Can you give us some background? What exactly about education funds are we talking about here?

Anna Van Dine: What we’re talking about is tuition. The thing to understand before anything else is that not all Vermont school districts include high schools, but districts still have the responsibility to provide their students with a secondary education from ninth through 12th grade.

Let’s say you’re an eighth grader, growing up in Mendon. That’s a place where there’s no high school for you to go to when you become a ninth grader, so you and your parents or guardians get to choose if you want to go to a public high school in a nearby district — like Rutland High School — or to an approved independent school, like Mount St. Joseph Academy. Wherever you choose to go, your home district will pay for your education.

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It’s like this for a lot of students in the state. According to the Vermont Independent Schools Association, upwards of 80 towns have school choice.

And Mendon, which is in the Barstow Unified Union School District, is actually where the most recent debate around school choice has been happening.

Okay, so the Barstow district is asking: Should it pay students’ tuition at both public and nonpublic schools? 

Exactly. And the reason it came up was because the school board suggested limiting school choice to three public high schools.

And why’s that, what would that change?

Well, what the Barstow school board chair told me was that they realized that there appeared to be a discrepancy between public and independent schools when it comes to equity. And what I mean is that a public school is an institution that welcomes and teaches all students, regardless of need, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, gender identity, and so on. And while a lot of independent schools do as well, they’re not required to exercise that same kind of equity in their programs or admissions.

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So the school board was like, maybe we don’t want public tax dollars to potentially support a school where we can’t be certain that equity is ensured in the same way that it is in public institutions.

Here’s board chair Brenda Hummel:

"...a simple solution would be to just send our students to public schools, or to just send our tuition payments to public schools. People could still go to nonpublic schools, of course, they just, they would have to pay for it themselves."

But when the board brought this to the community in a public meeting, the majority of people who spoke were opposed to the idea of limiting school choice to public schools.

Heather Williams is a parent and resident of Chittenden. Here’s what she said at the meeting:

"We only looked at Mendon and Chittenden when we were moving here 10 years ago. I know many families feel the same way, and I think that our town will definitely lose students and lose families if we choose to limit our school choice."

After the proposal was roundly rejected by taxpayers, the board, at their meeting last week, decided to drop it.

So it seems like this petered out in Barstow, but is this issue coming up elsewhere?

Yes, very much so. For the past 20 or so years, religious schools had been effectively excluded from school choice. But earlier this year, a federal appeals court said that three Vermont school districts that had refused to pay students’ tuition for religious schools actually did have to pay.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a Christian legal group, litigated the case on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Burlington and a few students who wanted to attend Rice Memorial High School, which is a private Catholic school in South Burlington. VTDigger has some great reporting on all this.

And this has also been impacted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year [Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue], which essentially ruled that tuition payments can’t be denied solely on the basis of a school’s religious affiliation.

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There’s a lot more to it than I have time to get into here ... including another suit, brought by a libertarian group, on behalf of a handful of parents from towns around Vermont suing the state and three school districts, trying to get the whole state to offer school choice.

Okay, so a lot going on in the courts around this what's next?

Well, what I was just talking about, the tuition payments for religious schools, is still ongoing. Just last Tuesday [Sept. 21], attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion in federal district court, because they want a definitive ruling to ensure Vermont students can get public school districts to pay students’ tuition at religious schools.

And even though people in the Barstow district have no problem with keeping things as they are, the State Board of Education is thinking about the kinds of issues that made the Barstow school board question independent schools in the first place.

There are two public hearings in October, when Vermonters can give feedback on proposed rules around special education, because in the next few years, independent schools will be required to support special education in order to receive public funding.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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