“I have much appreciation for all the support I have been given from so many across the state, especially my people of the Northeast Kingdom as I fight for you in our plight to continue to hold the great value of school choice and our wonderful independent schools.”
– Rep. Terri Lynn Williams
By Guy Page
For the second time this week, it was Citizen Advocates 1, Montpelier Insider Lobbyists 0 in the Vermont State House – at least for now.
Citizen Advocate victory #1 – Tuesday, the Vermont Senate agreed to a two-year study period on the costs of S.5, the Affordable Heating Act. The decision followed a powerful grassroots uprising against what critics say are high, unknown costs of implementing a statewide transition from fossil fuel heat to electricity.
Yesterday, the Vermont Senate approved S.5 with the checkback by a 19-10 vote, with Sen. Phil Baruth not voting because he was presiding over the Senate in the absence of Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who was absent yesterday and today – with no reason given on a note outside his office door. (Should the Senate vote on S.5 again, Sen. Baruth told VDC today, “I’m a solid yes.”)
The two year checkback is regarded as at least a mild win by some S.5 critics because it requires more study and an affirmative legislative vote before implementation can proceed two years from now. However, some critics say the amended bill actually may increase the likelihood of the expensive overhaul going forward.
Citizen Advocate victory #2 – Yesterday, March 2, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education Dan French came out in opposition to S.66, a bill crafted by the Senate Committee on Education to get around a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states to pay public school tuition to private schools, even private religious schools, for towns without their own high schools.
S.66 would ban tuition payments to all private schools (religious and non-religious) except those that meet several restrictive criteria. Few private schools meet the criteria and even those that do oppose the bill because they fear it will lead to a state takeover of their schools. Backers of S.66 include a united front of lobby groups for public school educators: teachers, administrators, and school boards.
Opposition is particularly intense in the Northeast Kingdom, where few towns have their own high schools and many send their teens to St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute, both privately-chartered, tuition-receiving schools.
Rep. Terri Lynn Williams (R-Granby) has become the legislative champion of concerned NEK residents opposing S.66 and a similar bill in the House, H.258. She said she and other lawmakers have received hundreds of phone calls and emails begging the Legislature to keep the private school tuition system as is.
Yesterday, French wrote a memo to the Senate Committee on Education saying:
“We do not support S.66. It would significantly alter the independent school landscape in Vermont. The State Board has worked hard to improve its regulatory oversight of independent schools…. We support this approach to regulation now established in State Board [of Education] rules.”
French referenced the Supreme Court decision in his memo. “Recent court rulings around the religious status of independent schools do not just a significant change in our regulations for independent schools,” he said.
But French did note the State’s openness to address S.66’s anti-discrimination concerns, which focus on religious schools’ unwillingness to adopt pro-LGBTQ policies: “We would support, however, strengthening our oversight to anti-discrmination to ensure those independent schools that choose to accept public tuition dollars meet the non-discrimination requirements of Vermont’s Public Accommodation laws.”
It remains to be seen whether requiring religious schools to meet these standards would pass muster in federal courts.
In a note to VDC, Williams expressed thanks to concerned Vermonters. “I have much appreciation for all the support I have been given from so many across the state, especially my people of the Northeast Kingdom as I fight for you in our plight to continue to hold the great value of school choice and our wonderful Independent schools, as they must have a home in our state along with our wonderful public schools.”
Williams, a member of the House Education Committee, said her committee already has taken extensive testimony on H258, all of it in favor. She has lined up three opponents to testify, but to date they have not been contacted by committee leadership to testify, she said.
Stealthing bill slips through House – In other action, the House today passed H40, the ‘stealthing’ condom bill, making it illegal for a man to remove a condom with knowledge or permission from a sex partner. The bill was fought vociferously in committee because it did not also require the same restrictions for withholding birth control pills or other forms of contraception. Rep. Tom Burditt (R-Rutland Town) spoke against the bill’s apparent gender inequality on the floor of the House this morning.
The Legislature will adjourn today and be home all next week for Town Meeting Day. Crossover, the date on which all bills (except budget and tax bills) must be approved by their committees of oversight in order to proceed this year, is March 17.