VISA update: New religious school tuition case filed, vaccination incentive program funds to be maintained

This is the March 5, 2022, update from the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

Though funding for the independent school vaccine incentive program was sharply reduced in the recent legislative Budget Adjustment Act, the Scott administration says it intends to continue the program by using other funds. The program is described in a December 7 AOE memo. AOE staffer Jill Briggs-Campbell says “the award is really unrestricted. Schools may use the funds as they see fit. The deadline to expend the funds is June 30.”

An 85 percent vaccination rate for eligible students is the minimum threshold to receive funds. Schools with a vaccination rate of 85 to 89.9 percent will receive $15 per student. There is a small school minimum of $2,000 and a maximum award of $10,000 regardless of student enrollment. Upon achieving a 90 percent vaccination rate, schools may submit amendments to receive an additional 50 percent of the original award with a maximum additional award of $5,000.

New religious school tuition case filed

The Burlington Catholic Diocese and two families with children attending Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland have filed a federal lawsuit against AOE Secretary French, and the Superintendent and School Directors of the Barstow School District seeking access to public tuition funds.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court, claims the families “were barred from the [tuition] benefit because—for more than two decades—Vermont has engaged in unconstitutional religious discrimination by denying students and their families equal access to a public benefit solely because they choose religious schools.” The suit says the Barstow School District “declined to pay the full tuition and instead only agreed to pay the subsidized tuition rate available to families who pay out-of-pocket.” And, the suit adds, “The district also reserved the right to reduce or claw back their award to account for MSJ’s religious activities or any scholarships the school provides.”

“Defendants’ actions violate the First Amendment rights of the [families] and their school,” the suit argues. “The government violates the Free Exercise Clause when it fails to meet the minimum require-ment of neutrality to religion and here defendants’ behavior exhibits a remarkable hostility to religion requiring this Court’s intervention.”

The suit was brought with the assistance of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group that is party to several suits in Vermont, in other states and in the recent religious freedom cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. ADF attorneys have filed two other similar lawsuits that also challenge discrimination against religious schools in Vermont’s education programs. In both cases, a federal appeals court stop-ped Vermont officials from excluding religious school students from the state’s programs, which allowed students at public and independent secular schools to participate.

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One thought on “VISA update: New religious school tuition case filed, vaccination incentive program funds to be maintained

  1. Re: “declined to pay the full tuition and instead only agreed to pay the subsidized tuition rate available to families who pay out-of-pocket.”

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no VT statutory agreement to pay a ‘subsidized tuition rate available to families who pay out-of-pocket.” There may be some negotiated local agreement in this regard. But Vermont statute requires districts to pay the ‘Announced Annual Tuition’ for any student qualifying for publicly funded tuition to an independent school.

    If it is a locally negotiated subsidy, that makes it even more a breach of the Constitution.

    The more of these legal actions the better. Vermont’s public-school monopoly has been traversing the Constitution for years and it must stop with School Choice Tuitioning being made available to all Vermont parents, regardless of the district in which they live and regardless of the approved school their children choose to attend, public, independent or parochial.

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