House leadership unable to corral enough votes?
by Guy Page
Sources at the Vermont State House say the vote on H483, restricting public school tuition to private schools, has been delayed until at least next Wednesday.
It is uncertain why voting on this bill, pushed strongly by a coalition of public school education groups, has been postponed after being placed on the House agenda this week. When bills are pulled from the voting schedule, it’s usually for one of two reasons: 1) House and committee leadership acknowledge there’s more work to be done on the bill, and/or 2) leadership has been counting heads and knows it lacks the votes to successfully pass the bill. Bringing a major bill to a floor vote and then losing on a roll call vote is considered a major, embarrassing blunder by its supporters. Blame is laid at the feet of the legislature’s leaders.
H483 would require all private schools (religious and secular) offer open enrollment, not being allowed to pick and choose among would-be enrollees. Supporters of Vermont’s many private schools receiving public tuition say this will impose a severe financial hardship on institutions that do not receive anywhere near the level of financial support as fully public schools.
The bill also requires all public tuition recipients provide equal access and rights to LGBTQ students and staff, as required for public schools by the state’s public accommodations law. It is unclear whether such a provision would be at odds with recent Supreme Court decisions requiring school districts to pay tuition without discriminating against religious schools.
Passing H483 would cause significant financial hardship to rural communities now relying on private schools as their primary high school. Rep. Terri Williams (R-Granby) recently wrote:
Essex County. 675 square miles. Population – about 5,800. Student population – about twelve hundred.
Only one high school, Canaan High School, a town that borders New Hampshire to the east, Canada to the north. It is a good little public school with about 100 students. Most of the other high school students go to Lyndon Institute and St Johnsbury Academy, both independent schools. Great schools. And about as close as any for Essex County students to get to.
Many of their parents work in St. J and Lyndonville, making transportation convenient. Lyndon Institute provides busing for Essex County students who live in Lunenburg and Concord but no further north. St Johnsbury Academy does not provide transportation. Students rely on parents and neighbors to transport them.
The Education Committee’s independent schools bill does not help either of these high schools meet the unprecedented, strict new standards it seeks to impose. When the new, high bar is not reached, where oh where will Essex County students go then? Are we really ok with gambling with the educational lives of these students?
If the state of Vermont wants to build a public school right in the middle of Essex County, that would be great. Essex County certainly can’t afford to build one.
Northeast Kingdom schools have been underfunded for more than 20 years. The Legislature has created a new funding formula that hopefully will fix that. For so many, it is too little too late.
What we must not do is just load another bale of straw on the already overburdened camel’s back.
There is much talk about equity in the Legislature. Forced open enrollment of schools already trailing behind wealthier, urban towns in transportation and teacher pay just widens the real-life equity gap. It cannot help but leave the poor towns poorer.
Already this year, a Senate bill would force my constituents to pay more just to stay warm. Shall we now force my constituents to pay more to send their children to school?
Camels bite, you know. After listening to my constituents who believe Montpelier is threatening not only their ability to stay warm, but their children’s futures, I assure you, that bite will feel like a little nip in comparison to how the camel will react if this bill passes unchanged.
For decades paying public school tuition to private schools has been one of the practical, positive, future-thinking features of life in Essex County. I am sure that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carson V. Makin, it did not have in mind punishing rural families and private schools. Rather than pass a law that will spend money the state doesn’t have, inflict needless suffering on low-income, rural families, and make the State of Vermont a defendant before a miffed Supreme Court, I hope this bill will be returned to the House Education Committee with directions to craft a truly equitable bill that serves all citizens, and not just the narrow, inequitable interests of the big schools and the public education establishment.