By Guy Page
The Vermont Senate has introduced its long-promised work-around of a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring towns with no high schools to provide tuition to approved, independent religious schools.
S.66 would require school districts with no high schools to designate up to three schools to choose from — either public or an approved independent schools.
However, the bill also would dramatically redefine what constitutes an approved independent school. Without mentioning the religious nature (if any) of the school, the bill requires independent schools “eligible for designation” meet at least three of the four requirements:
- The recognized independent school serves as a regional CTE center [tech school] as defined in section 1522 of this title.
- The recognized independent school was established through the granting of a charter by the Vermont General Assembly.
- The recognized independent school qualified as a public school under the definition of “public school” in effect on June 30, 1991.
- The recognized independent school is designated under state law as an employer of teachers as defined by law covering the State Teachers’ Retirement System of Vermont.
The crafters of S.66 appear to have identified the unique origins and hiring practices of religious schools (such as Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic parochial school in South Burlington) and written the new requirements accordingly — without explicitly mentioning religion or any conflict with LGBTQ-related hiring and curriculum that, among other issues, senators last year said they found objectionable about paying public tuition to these schools.
Most religious schools were founded because state schools were deemed incompatible with religious values and practices, and thus have no charter from the General Assembly. Also, most religious schools do not follow union-based hiring and compensation applying to public school teachers.
The sponsors are:
- Sen. Ruth Hardy (lead sponsor)
- Sen. Ann Cummings
- Sen. Martine Gulick
- Sen. Virginia Lyons
- Sen. Mark MacDonald
- Sen. Richard McCormack
- Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale
- Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky
- Sen. Anne Watson
- Sen. Rebecca White
- Sen. Irene Wrenner
At present, school districts that lack their own high schools may now, at the parents’ request, tuition students to parochial and other religious schools. This recent development followed a U.S. Supreme Court decision of Carson V. Makin and a subsequent legal settlement with the State of Vermont, negotiated on behalf of parents by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the tuition program was available to districts without a public high school, helping high schoolers to attend a private school — a secular one — of their choice. High school students in Maine fell under a similar program that was also excluding religious schools until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Makin that the state was unlawfully discriminating against them.
If S66 becomes law, it could face a legal challenge due to it being an attempted ‘workaround’ of the Makin decision prohibiting unlawful discrimination.
Senators last session repeatedly said they were frustrated in their efforts to find an acceptable legal solution to requiring tuition payments to parochial schools. They promised a bill would be introduced this year.
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.