When the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that public funding could not be used for worship or religious education but could be used for secular classes in religious schools, it left school districts at a standstill.
Local school boards and district administrators who pay tuition fees to schools had no criteria by which to assess whether payments to a religious school would fund religion or education. Districts made their own decisions, with some paying tuition fees to religious schools and others drawing a clear line.
Last week’s decision by the Vermont State Board of Education demanding that three school districts pay tuition fees to religious schools, an issue that is also the subject of litigation in federal court, does not make matters any clearer, school officials say of two of the districts, both of them in the Upper Valley.
“Whether the State Board of Education decides to decide on a case-by-case basis seems really shortsighted to me,” said Elizabeth Burrows, chair of the Mount Ascutney School Board, which oversees education in Windsor and West Windsor.
Burrows, who was elected to Vermont House in November, submitted an invoice, HB 130, which would require the State Board of Education “to define by rule what a religious school is and set forth the standards … on how a religious school can demonstrate that it does not use public lessons for religious instruction ”.
The Council of State’s decision, made at its April 21 meeting, takes the opposite approach, noting that there was no evidence that religious schools had been asked whether they could “certify that the costs of public schooling would not be used for worship or religious education ”. says the decision.
By overturning the decisions of local school boards, the State Council, which now consists entirely of members appointed by Governor Phil Scott, drew up a narrow decision that does not clarify what actions local officials need to take to make decisions that will remain valid.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Nicole Buck, president of the Hartland School Board on Monday. She described the Council of State’s decision as “frustrating”.
“I think the state needs to provide more advice,” she said.
The State Council noted in its 21-page decision that since the 1999 decision in Chittenden Town School District v. Department of Education, “the state has not passed legislation or rules to implement Chittenden”.
State Board of Education chairman John Carroll, a Norwich resident, a former Republican senator for the state, said in a statement that the board would have no further comment on its decision. But he also acknowledged that the board or legislature “might wish to give advice” and that the board “might address certain issues through rule making.”
School districts in Vermont that do not operate schools at a particular grade level may pay tuition fees to public schools or approved private schools, in or outside the state. Towns in the upper Vermont valley that pay high school tuition include Corinth, Chelsea, Tunbridge, Sharon, Strafford, Hartland, and Weathersfield.
The Hartland School District was one of three districts named in a federal lawsuit filed last year on behalf of families seeking to pay for tuition at religious schools. Hartland residents Stephen and Joanna Buckley send their son to New England Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Claremont. Officials at Hartland’s school rejected their requests for tuition fees and appealed to the State Board of Education.
Additionally, Michael and Lucy Dunne, of West Windsor, have asked the Mount Ascutney School Board to pay the tuition fees for their son, who attends Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The board rejected their request and they also appealed to the State Board of Education.
A third family, from Rutland Town, also appealed a decision regarding tuition fees, and a fourth, in the Ludlow Mt. Holly Unified Union School District, appealed, but their tuition claim went on to follow. been accepted by their district school board.
Of the four families, all but the Dunnes are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against the school districts and the state. The families are represented by the Institute for Justice, the same libertarian public interest law firm that represented the Chittenden School Board when it filed a lawsuit against the state in 1996.
Efforts to reach the Buckleys were unsuccessful.
Last week’s Council of State ruling reflects the state’s defense in the lawsuit, Valente, et al. v. French. Education Secretary Dan French and Carroll both filed statements with the court indicating that neither the National Agency of Education nor the Board of Education has a policy preventing local school districts from paying fees. tuition at “an independent religious school approved solely because of the school’s religious status, identity or character.”
The state also filed as evidence a list of 82 payments to religious schools made by districts in Vermont from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2019. The list includes one payment to a Catholic school in Spain, several payments to Shattuck- St. Mary’s, an episcopal school in Faribault, Minn .; at Woolman, a Quaker school in Nevada City, California; and Brigham Young University, a Mormon affiliate school in Utah. Most of the payments went to prestigious episcopal college preparatory schools, including St. Paul’s School, in Concord, and St. Andrews, in Middletown, Del.
The list also contains some errors. For example, North Country Supervisory Union never paid for a student to attend a Cornerstone Christian school in fiscal 2018, but paid to send a student to a Cornerstone school, a therapeutic placement in St. Johnsbury who was coded incorrectly by the Education Agency, John Castle, superintendent at North Country, said in a recent telephone interview.
“I am convinced that we would not have paid the tuition fees at a religious school,” said Castle. Only one North Country SU school district, Coventry, pays tuition for high school, and most students attend an approved local or independent public school, Castle said.
Likewise, officials at Sharon’s school said they did not recall authorizing payment of tuition fees at Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school in South Burlington, in fiscal 2009, although such a payment is on the state list.
“I don’t remember that situation at all,” said Donald Shaw, longtime chairman of Sharon’s school board, in a recent interview.
“Personally, I don’t remember a student attending Rice,” said Barrett Williams, then principal of Sharon Elementary School. Sharon does not have a middle school or high school and pays tuition for grades 7-12.
For this year, school districts will follow the order of the State Council and pay tuition fees to religious schools, but they hope for greater clarity next year. The federal lawsuit continues, as families seek to establish a right to receive public funds for religious education, and Burrows, a Democrat / Progressive, plans to pursue her bill in the Statehouse.
A hearing in the federal trial is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.
Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.