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.