Lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Education on Friday passed a bill 6-0 that would restrict public funds going to some independent and religious schools.
The bill, S.219, would mandate that “the school or program has adequate safeguards to ensure that none of the tuition for which payment is requested has been or will be used to support religious instruction or worship or the propagation of religious views,” the bill text reads.
If it becomes law, independent schools will be required to follow public schools’ antidiscrimination policies if they want to receive federal funds. S.219 would “prohibit a school district from paying public tuition to a qualified school or program, regardless of religious status or affiliation, unless the school or program complies with federal and State antidiscrimination laws applicable to public schools.”
Legislative counsel James DesMarais said during the committee meeting that any non-compliance with the standards set by public schools can result in a student or teacher filing a report to the school board. Ultimately, the school could lose public funding.
On Thursday, committee chair Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said public money going to religious schools is a big concern for him.
“I feel like we know that dollars are going to religious schools right now, and so we need to put some guard rails on that, and we need to protect the students and the staff,” he said.
The committee received a joint statement from four executive directors from the state’s education organizations: the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont NEA, the Vermont Superintendent’s Association, and the Vermont Principals’ Association..
The organizations have taken a position that the state should forego giving state money to private schools altogether.
“In order to meet this mandate, the State must ensure that all schools that receive public dollars reflect our framers’ vision of public education by being inclusive and providing quality instruction that gives children the tools they need in order to succeed,” they wrote. “The best approach for the State to take to address the issues in S.219 is to fund only public schools. The debate over this legislation, the testimony that has been provided to the Committee, and pending litigation in Vermont amply illustrate that funding private schools requires the State to navigate a morass of complicated legal and logistical issues.”
Sue Ceglowski, director of the Vermont School Boards Association, told the committee Thursday that more “accountability measures” should be included in the state’s contracts with independent schools.
“It would be important to include other basic requirements around things like curriculum, staff qualification, open meetings, public records requirements, fiscal accountability, and student assessments,” she said.
It’s not clear if such requirements might, for example, prohibit a religious school from having religion classes.
Ceglowski said the bill lacks clarity regarding its antidiscrimination components.
“It’s not clear to us looking at this version of the bill that the private schools that are receiving public funds are required to comply with the Equal Education Opportunities Act because there isn’t a readily available list of every single antidiscrimination law from the State of Vermont and federally. And I’m not clear whether this law falls under an antidiscrimination law or not,” she said.
DesMarais said that should not be a concern.
“It covers all federal and state antidiscrimination laws,” he said.
The bill probably won’t be on the floor for a while, said Campion, the chair of the committee. Instead it is headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee.