By Guy Page
While Vermont parents publicly and anonymously protest masking mandates and Critical Race Theory-based instruction in the public education system, many others are simply voting with their feet and removing their children from public schools.
This year, some parents placing their children in private religious schools will have financial help from their local public school districts. An estimated 20-25 students enrolled in Catholic religious schools are having their tuition paid by their local “tuitioning town” school districts.
An estimated 10-15 school districts are involved, said Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington School Superintendent Dr. Jeanne Gearon today. “I am in my initial days of gathering this information as the enrollment window for schools has continued throughout the summer. At this point I believe it will be around 20-25 students diocesan-wide from around 10-15 different towns,” she said in a response to a Vermont Daily Chronicle inquiry.
“Most of the School Districts/Supervisory Unions have been wonderful to work with and have been very open to supporting these families and their right to educational choice,” Dr. Gearon added.
The public schools’ newfound willingness to pay tuition to religious schools stems from the 2020 US Supreme Court Espinoza decision, which found that private religious schools cannot be discriminated against by school districts that already pay tuition to private schools. The Vermont Board of Education ruled April 22 that Espinoza requires Vermont “tuition town” school districts to pay up to its standard per-pupil tuition rate for several students whose families had filed suit to recover religious school tuition.
In April, it was unclear if Espinoza and the State Board ruling would indeed open the door to public tuitioning of religious schools. Legislation was pending that could seek to limit the practice. However, the bill never passed, as as Gearon notes, local “tuition town” school districts this fall are cooperating with paying tuition to religious schools.
According to the Vermont Department of Education, 99 school districts pay tuition for at least one grade, 95 school districts tuition more than one grade, and 79 school districts have some measure of school choice for grades 9-12.
It is unclear whether Vermont parents of students attending non-Catholic religious schools also are seeking tuition reimbursement. But one thing is clear: several traditional evangelical-based schools are seeing high enrollment.
“Our enrollment is up nearly 25% from over a year ago,” Pastor Brian Fecher of Websterville Christian Academy said yesterday. The preK-through-high school in Barre Town was founded in 1975 as a ministry of Websterville Baptist Church.
“Masking is a very sensitive issue,” Fecher added. “We are analyzing the data daily.”
Trinity Baptist in Williston also is seeing an uptick in number of students. “Enrollment is higher,” Pastor Rob McIlwaine said. “Enrollment increased last year because parents wanted in-person instruction which we provided every day. I am not sure how the pandemic may have impacted enrollment this year. The most-stated reason for public school transfer to TBS this year was the desire for a Christian worldview.”
Nearby Essex Junction has been Ground Zero for pushback against the influence of Critical Race Theory, which critics say is Marxist-based.
Home schooling enrollment numbers won’t be known until October. However, state education officials last month said early enrollment appears strong, and a Vermont home schooling advocate today said she has been in contact with many first-time home schoolers this year.
Meanwhile, parents continue to protest public school policies – most notably, those required masking. Franklin County seems to be an epicenter of opposition to mask mandates. At this August 18 Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union school board meeting in Enosburg, parent Amy Wood can be seen on public access video complaining about the school board’s decision to ignore parents’ requests at a previous meeting, and instead follow the optional State of Vermont guidance to mask all students and staff during the first few weeks of school, pending 80% vaccination of all eligible students.
“Every single parent that had the courage to stand up in front of you said no to the mask, and we were ignored,” Wood said.
“You say that you are following guidance from the Agency of Education,” Wood continued. “I have read through that document myself several times and nowhere in there does it say you can deny a child his or her right to an education if they refuse a mask. My children cannot focus like normal and learn to their full potential when they are required to wear a mask. It makes them feel anxious. It makes it difficult to breathe. And they’re constantly having to adjust it on their face, which further interrupts their learning.”
In the Swanton-Highgate area, parent Chelsea Lumbra says 150 parents are organized against mask mandates.
Many of them attended an August 19 meeting described as raucous by some Vermont press outlets. “We had more than 50 parents attend that board meeting,” Lumbra said. “To date there are about 150 in our group and growing daily. I am aware of at least two other districts fighting this as well.”
“As parents we became concerned about the school board’s handling of COVID 19 procedures by handing over all decision making power to the Superintendent instead of consulting with the MVSD parents,” Lumbra said. “Despite attempting to communicate to the Superintendent about our concerns, we were ignored or provided generic answers that did not address our children’s individual needs.
“We believe that parents understand what is in the best interest of their children socially, emotionally and medically. We believe parents should be in charge of deciding whether their child wears a mask or not. We respect anyone who wishes to wear a mask. Fundamentally we believe in choice for all.”
Some parents in her group have chosen to home school as a result. Others cannot for financial reasons.
Right now, private school options are limited in Franklin County.
“In northern Vermont there really aren’t any private schools, they’re all in Chittenden county which is not an option for most parents here. The majority of the parents I am in contact with are willing to continue this fight so that masking can become a choice. Our next board meeting is 9/7 and we plan to go back and keep going back.”
Some parents are staying anonymous, yet are still telling Vermont Daily Chronicle their stories. “My son has just started sixth grade and completed his first day of school mask free, as the school staff were unable to force him to wear a mask,” a Burlington parent said. “We’ve been told that when he returns tomorrow they will consider reporting him for trespassing if he enters the building maskless. We foresee a prolonged struggle on this issue.”