Education

School districts must pay religious school tuition

By Guy Page

The Vermont State Board of Education yesterday ordered four Vermont school districts to pay the tuition of four students attending religious schools.

All of the parents of the four students had requested the district pay the tuition, and had been turned down. 

Michael and Nancy Valente (Ludlow school district), Paul and Ingrid Gallo (Rutland Town) have children attending Mt. St. Joseph, a private Catholic school in Rutland. Joanna and Stephen Buckley have a child who attends New England Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Claremont, NH. A child of Lucy and Michael Dunne (Mt. Ascutney school district) attends the Kent School, a Connecticut private school affiliated with the Episcopalian church. 

The Ludlow school district reconsidered its denial of the Valente request, and in March decided to pay the $6500 annual tuition to MSJ. 

The order cites a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of state payments for religious schooling. “Based on the limited record before the Board, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s controlling decision in Espinoza, the tuition denials in the Gallo, Buckley, and Dunne appeals must be reversed.”

The order explains: “In each of these cases, the appellants asked their respective school district to pay tuition for the 2020/21 school year to the school attended by their child. In each case, the tuition request was denied by the school district and the appellants paid out of pocket. Each family then filed a timely appeal to the State Board of Education. Each of these appeals involves the same legal issue: what are the constitutional parameters, both state and federal, that govern public tuition payments to religious schools?”

The board found that “No Vermont statute or rule limits the payment of tuition to independent

schools based on the schools’ religious affiliation, programming, or instruction. Nothing prevents religious schools in Vermont from qualifying as approved independent schools; one of the schools at issue here, Mount St. Joseph Academy, is an approved independent school in Vermont.”

However school districts are not required to pay the full tuition rate of the private school, only the “average announced tuition of Vermont union high schools.”

It remains to be seen whether the Board decision will usher in a new era of public tuition payment for all Vermont religious schooling. Opponents of yesterday’s decision could challenge it in Vermont Supreme Court. The State Board decision, while requiring the tuition payments, noted that a 1999 VT Supreme Court decision “requires sufficient safeguards to ensure that public funds are not used to support religious worship or religious instruction.” 

Also, a change in state law could set a higher bar for religious school tuition qualification. H130 would “require the State Board of Education to, by rule, define what a religious school is and set out the standards…for how a religious school can demonstrate that it is not using public tuition for religious instruction.” 

The lead sponsor is Rep. Elizabeth Burrows (Windsor), a member and past chair of the Mt. Ascutney School Board. Introduced in January, H130 remains “on the wall” of the House Education Committee. 

Photo Credit: NewEnglandClassicalAcademy.com.

Categories: Education

16 replies »

    • However school districts are not required to pay the full tuition rate of the private school, only the “average announced tuition of Vermont union high schools.”

      FYI:
      The 2020-2021 Average Announced Tuition of Union Elementary Schools is $14,859.00
      The 2020-2021 Average Announced Tuition of Union 7th-12th Grade Schools is $16,233.00

      • Re: H130 would “require the State Board of Education to, by rule, define what a religious school is and set out the standards…for how a religious school can demonstrate that it is not using public tuition for religious instruction.”

        H130 will also be found to be unconstitutional. Everyone should keep in mind that the First Amendment says:

        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”.

        The second clause bears repeating. ‘or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”.

        This two-edged sword prohibits the government from both unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.

        Therefore, that funds may or may not be used in conjunction with religious instruction is not the purview of ‘The State’. In Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s concurring opinion in the ZELMAN v. SIMMONS-HARRIS Cleveland School Choice case, decided June 27, 2002, she pointed out that:

        “…the Court held that the “[First] Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary.”

        “What the Court clarifies in these cases is that the Establishment Clause also requires that state aid flowing to religious organizations through the hands of beneficiaries must do so only at the direction of those beneficiaries.”

        In other words, as long as options are available ‘at the directions of those’ parents, they are authorized to choose a school that includes religious instruction in its curriculum.

      • I don’t believe those figures include the benefits and retirement package….add that in and I believe it approaches $21-22k per student. You’ll know better than me on this.

      • The Average Announced Tuition is set by the Agency of Education using a somewhat convoluted formula. It does not reflect all costs of education in a given public school. In my district, for example, the annual budget divided by the actual number of students is well over $22,000 per year.

        Why do I say the AOE uses a convoluted formula? For one thing, it’s based on what is called a cost per ‘equalized student enrollment’. While my local high school, for example, is listed as having an ‘equalized student enrollment’ of 345 students, there are, in reality, only 305 actual students in the school.

        But you make a legitimate point. Not only is the Average Announced Tuition almost twice what a religious school typically charges, if all parents chose religious schools, spending, for example, only $7000 annually per student, the cost would be only 1/3rd that of a typical public school.

        Just imagine what would happen if Vermont’s education property taxes decreased by 60%. While unlikely under the best-case scenario, it’s possible. In Idaho and Utah, for example, the average cost per student in their public schools is just over $7000 per student and their students perform as well as Vermont’s. It can be done – if we allow an education free market to thrive.

      • FYI, Neil: The Legislture is at it again.

        “But a study of the weighting factors, undertaken by the University of Vermont at the Legislature’s behest in 2019, showed the existing weighting factors are inadequate, and were not based on empirical evidence. The study, produced by UVM professor Tammy Kolbe, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University in New Jersey, and the American Institutes for Research, proposes adding factors for rural students and greatly increasing the factors for students in poverty, to 2.95 from 0.25.”

        This will effectively, significantly, and arbitrarily, increase the number of students used to determine the Average Tuition allowed per student, lower the the Tuition amount, and artificially make it appear that Vermont’s student population is not declining.

        It’s more ‘smoke and mirrors’ designed to hurt parents choosing to send their children to independent schools.

  1. This ruling has taken at least 10 years off the lifespan of democrat & progressive legislators.

    • Only a temporary setback. When the benefits of free market in education services are finally realized, they too will be relieved and appreciative. No longer will they be beholden to the special interest groups. And as eduction outcomes improve and cost increases slow down, they’ll be able to face their friends and neighbors with positive news…. for a change.

  2. if I’m reading this correctly, then this should be a cost reduction for the tax payers. A better education and a lower cost, and even some moral instruction thrown in… a triple win!

    • Exactly. But beware. The public school lobby will claim the tuition cost is in addition to your current education tax assessment, because the public school has to spend the same amount as its enrollments decline anyway. The special interest groups claim that tuition takes money away from the public schools. Of course, it’s a fallacious argument for the most part. They never mention that the students leave the public schools too – after all, to the public school special interest groups, it’s all about the public school institution, not the taxpayers, parents or, most importantly, their children.

      But you will hear that the public schools must maintain their capability in case independent school students choose to return to the public schools later on. There are several other arguments the public school lobby cites too, including but not limited to offering more programs than independent schools, higher pay for ‘certified’ teachers and transportation. But all of these arguments are equally fallacious.

  3. Most religious schools charge about $7000. A good question to ask is how do those schools offer an education that a lot of parents want for their kids at 50% of the cost of a public/government school? Hmmmm.

  4. This came too late to help our family. After a less than ideal experience in second grade for older child, we decided to send her to a Christian School for 3rd grade. She did pretty well, so we kept her in that school until it was time for her to go to middle school. She went to a different Christian School for middle school & high school. Her younger sister started in the Christain school and made the switch as well. It was quite expensive to have our kids in a Christian School but older daughter graduated second in her class and younger daughter graduated first in hers. They both worked hard on their studies and were successful due to their hard work and the dedication these teachers showed towards their students. Both daughters were able to qualify for state scholarships due to their grades. In effect, we paid the high cost up front, but the scholarships made it worth the expense. I don’t regret spending the money for their education. It shaped the character of the women they have become.

  5. Wonderful news; I have been sending my son to a madrassa school, which is expensive; now he can get a quality education at no cost to my family. الله أكبر allah ‘akbar. Peace and love to you all.

    • Your remark is incongruent. If your Madrassa school is expensive, let’s say as expensive as Vermont’s public schools, the Tuition Voucher won’t cover all of your costs. Which leads me to view your cynicism as not only palatable, but an example of the hypocritical bigotry that is rampant in public school special interest groups.

      Indeed, allowing individuals the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their children means that Muslims can send children to schools that are Islamic. And Catholics to schools that incorporate Catholicism. And Atheist to schools that believe God doesn’t exist.

      On the other hand, if you are truly thankful for the opportunity to follow your beliefs, School Choice is a reasonable governance, and you should be thanking The Founders who penned the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  6. An old School Psychologist’s fantasy: Maybe this is the beginning of society’s tax money FOLLOWING THE KIDS…or stop confiscation it from us? Maybe the culture will return to the vision that the agents of a child’s education are the parents (as guide) and that child (as the DOER OF THE LEARNING). Teachers and the schooling enterprise, though potentially useful, are venders. Now clearly, teachers have indentured them selves to a monopoly plantation and a deceptively manipulative guild recast as a our worst nightmares of a union (confessional shame moment…life time NEA member here), …BUT… maybe a teachers’ epiphany will bloom…maybe they will break free and directly market their considerable skill to families…buy the, soon to be moribund, “public school” and start up viable business to serve families. I confess to reveling in this fantasy.

  7. The argument could be made that the human secularism taught in public schools is a religion.

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