By Guy Page
Vermont school districts must pay tuition to approved religious schools, Vermont Agency of Education Secretary Dan French said in a letter providing guidance on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The court earlier this year struck down a Maine law prohibiting school districts without their own secondary schools to pay tuition to religious schools.
“School districts may not deny tuition payments to religious approved independent schools or religious independent schools that meet educational quality standards,” French wrote in a Sept. 14 letter to all Vermont superintendents (see below).
A bill restricting payment of religious school tuition passed the Senate last year but failed in the House. House leaders postponed any action pending the outcome of Makin.
Supreme Court decision and Agency of Ed guidance notwithstanding, leaders in the Vermont Legislature aren’t surrendering the tuition battle yet.
Senate Education Chair Brian Campion (D-Bennington) told Seven Days newspaper this week: “This fight is not over yet. I am still committed to working toward eventually preventing tax dollars going to religious schools while not harming the educational landscape that works so well in Vermont.”
Makin and French’s guidance appear to limit religious school tuition to “tuitioning” districts without their own secondary school systems. Vermont Daily Chronicle has emailed French to clarify whether elementary and middle school religious schools may receive tuition.
The Vermont Approved and Recognized Independent School Directory includes these religious schools: Bishop John A. Marshall in Morrisville, Caledonia Christian School in St. Johnsbury, Champlain Valley Christian School in Vergennes, Christ the King in Rutland, Christ the King in Burlington, Good Shepherd Catholic School in St. Johnsbury, Mater Christi School in Burlington, Mid-Vermont Christian School in White River Junction, Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland, Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington, Rutland Area Christian School in Rutland, Sacred Heart School in Bennington, St. Francis Xavier in Winooski, St. Michaels Catholic School in Brattleboro, St. Monica’s Catholic School in Barre, and St. Paul’s Catholic School in Barton.
A July, 2020 list of all Vermont supervisory school districts lists the ‘tuitioned’ districts.
Secretary French’s letter appears below.
This letter provides guidance regarding payments of tuition to approved independent schools and independent schools meeting educational quality standards pursuant to 16 V.S.A. §§ 821 and 822.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Carson v. Makin, 142 S. Ct. 1987 (2022). Carson v. Makin related to Maine’s program for providing education to students who live in districts that do not operate secondary schools. Similar to Vermont, Maine provides for tuition assistance to the public school or approved private school of the parent’s choice. To be approved for tuition purposes, Maine’s law required a school to be a “nonsectarian school in accordance with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The Supreme Court held that Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carson v. Makin, we are writing to advise you of the following: School districts may not deny tuition payments to religious approved independent schools or religious independent schools that meet educational quality standards based on the Vermont Constitution’s Compelled Support Clause, Vermont Constitution Chapter I, Article 3.
Requests for tuition payments for resident students to approved independent religious schools or religious independent schools that meet educational quality standards must be treated the same as requests for tuition payments to secular approved independent schools or secular independent schools that meet educational quality standards. Tuition payment to approved independent schools must follow 16 V.S.A. §§ 821-828 and must be paid without regard to any tuition assistance that schools provide to students whose tuition is privately paid.
Please note that tuition can only be paid to a public school, an approved independent school, an independent school meeting education quality standards, a tutorial program approved by the State Board, an approved education program, or an independent school in another state or country approved under the laws of that state or country. 16 V.S.A. § 828.
A directory of independent schools—specifying whether the program is an approved independent school, recognized independent school, or another type of program—is available at the Agency of Education’s Independent Schools webpage.
Daniel French, Secretary
Vermont Agency of Education