McClaughry: Senate bill attacks tuition choice

By John McClaughry

A bill making its way through the Vermont legislature is the latest attempt by the education establishment to limit or block parental choice in education  –  at a time when parents are  looking for affordable alternatives to what’s being taught to their kids in public schools. It’s the public school lobby’s response to court cases that have opened the door to children to escape from unsatisfactory public schools to more satisfying independent schools, including faith-based schools.

John McClaughry

The bill, S.219, is promoted by Senate Education Committee chair Brian Campion (Democrat of Bennington). Campion said the bill’s main purpose was to put what he termed “guardrails” around permissible uses of public funds in religious schools. The bill limits out-of-state tuitioning only to independent schools in Vermont’s neighboring states and in Quebec. This has been a long time goal of the teachers union, which wants no public tuition money to leave the state, no matter what.

Senator Ruth Hardy, Democrat of Addison, said she could not support the bill “because it further entangles our public school financing system with private and more egregiously religious schools.” Instead, she said “We should be exploring and cementing a path for eliminating our current system of tuition.” So much for the interests of parents and students.

Make no mistake. S.219 has some useful features, but the ultimate goal of the public education lobby is to keep every education tuition dollar going to unionized public schools.

The author, a Kirby resident, is founder and vice-president of the Ethan Allen Institute. To read all EAI news and commentary, go to

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6 replies »

  1. We need money for kids to go to religious and charter schools. Our public schools are garbage and parents should be able to have the option of sending their kids somewhere Else. Also for more help to those who want to teach their kids at home.

    • 100% correct. And especially with what our legislators have in mind for children……..every parent has a right to those taxpayer dollars going to the school of choice; I bet we would see a much different angle happening in our legislative reps and public schools…….We do have damn good teachers whose hands and feet are being tied in a knot

  2. This bill has NO redeeming features. It offends both the Federal and Vermont Constitutions, it infringes on inalienable individual rights, and it disregards precedent set forth by the SCOTUS.

    Re: “This bill proposes to: (1) ensure compliance with the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions by clarifying that a school district is authorized to pay public tuition to a qualified school or program, regardless of its religious status or affiliation, if the school or program has adequate safeguards to ensure that none of the tuition for which payment is requested has been or will be used to support religious instruction or worship or the propagation of religious views; (2) prohibit a school district from paying public tuition to a qualified school or program, regardless of religious status or affiliation, unless the school or program complies with federal and State antidiscrimination laws applicable to public schools; and (3) clarify under what circumstances a school district shall make dual enrollment available to students who attend a school with a religious mission.”

    As I’ve pointed out before, one of the first SCOTUS rulings supporting School Choice when challenged on 1st Amendment Establishment Clause jurisprudence was Zelman v Simmons-Harris, in 2001. And in that decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurring opinion pointed out the following.

    First, federal, state, and local governments already provide support to religious institutions. Religious organizations already qualify for exemptions from the federal corporate income tax, the corporate income tax in many States, and property taxes in all 50 States. Clergy qualify for a federal tax break on income used for housing expenses. In addition, the Federal Government provides individuals, corporations, trusts, and estates a tax deduction for charitable contributions to qualified religious groups. And the Federal Government and certain state governments provide tax credits for educational expenses, many of which are spent on education at religious schools.

    Federal dollars also reach religiously affiliated organizations through public health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, through educational programs such as Pell Grants, the G. I. Bill of Rights, and through childcare such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program.

    So… where is the complaint of compelled religious support against these programs and policies?

    Justice O’Connor goes on to say that:

    “…the goal of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence is to determine whether, after the Cleveland voucher program was enacted, parents were free to direct state educational aid in either a nonreligious or religious direction.”

    And this is the critical point. Taxpayer funded school choice vouchers do not compel anyone to support a religion. The vouchers support freedom of choice. And the first amendment not only says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,”. It also says Congress shall make no law “… prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”.

    The fact that we are endowed by our creator to make personal choices on behalf of our own children, while at the same time, taking advantage of the individual liberty and freedom we have by virtue of our U.S. and VT Constitutions, compels us only to protect and defend the individual inalienable right to make those decisions – not prohibit them.

    Just because someone pays taxes doesn’t give them the right to encroach upon the inalienable individual rights of others!

    After all, nothing in Vermont’s ‘tuitioning’ jurisprudence forces any parent to choose schools that ‘support religious instruction or worship or the propagation of religious views’. And it’s unconstitutional to restrict them from doing so if they so choose.

    I hope everyone takes the time to read Justice O’Connor’s opinion.

  3. Pragmatically, Parochial and some Private schools run at a loss. Public education is costly. It can actually save money and eliminate overcrowding to voucher children into non-Public schools.

    • You are absolutely correct in your assessment. And the irony is that many Vermont families and school districts, those with school ‘tuitioning’, already take advantage of School Choice and save money.

      In my school district, we spend more than $23,000 per student to teach our K-8th grades. But many of our 7th & 8th graders cost only $17,000 per student. Parents use the State’s ‘tuition’ voucher to send their 7th & 8TH grade kids to independent schools.

      But the argument you will hear from some, is that many wealthy Vermont parents already send their kids to independent schools and pay the full tab because they can afford to do so. There are about 4000 of these students in Vermont today. So, allowing everyone to have a ‘tuition’ voucher will create a short-term additional cost of $68 Million to the State education fund.

      Of course, for comparison, consider that there are 75,000 public school students in Vermont. If just one-third of them used the ‘tuition’ voucher and only saved half the difference between the public-school cost per student and the ‘tuition’ voucher, it would offset the additional cost of paying the tuition for those wealthy parents. Or we can index the education funding with a proportionate income tax on those wealthy enough to afford it.

      But most importantly, School Choice takes the politics out of education. Cost increases over the long term will begin to decline because of competition, and student performance will improve. What’s not to like about that?

  4. egregiously religious schools? most of the religious schools I know of depend on donations, fund raising, parent participation, strive for academic high standards and inclusion of all. maybe the naysayer should educate herself on the benefits of non governmental education. But maybe that’s asking too much.

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