Approved Religious Schools Are Eligible for Public Dollars, VT Education Secretary Says | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Approved Religious Schools Are Eligible for Public Dollars, VT Education Secretary Says


Published September 14, 2022 at 10:13 p.m.

Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington
Vermont school districts must use public dollars to pay for students to attend approved religious schools, Education Secretary Dan French wrote in a memo sent to school superintendents on Tuesday. 

The new guidance comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's June ruling in the case of Carson v. Makin, which found  that Maine's exclusion of religious schools from its school tuitioning program was a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In her dissent to the 6-3 ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the court "continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”

Vermont has a tuitioning system similar to Maine, in which families in towns without a public school are allowed to use tax dollars to send their children to a public or independent school of their choice. For instance, a
 student in the Grand Isle Supervisory Union, which does not have a high school, could choose to attend a public institution in Chittenden or Franklin county — or a private school.
"Requests for tuition payments for resident students to approved independent religious schools or religious independent schools that meet education 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," French's memo says.

In recent years, both the State Board of Education and a federal appeals court have ordered Vermont school districts to pay tuition to religious schools.

In April 2021, the state board ordered three school districts to reimburse families for tuition they paid to send their children to Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland and New England Classical Academy in Claremont, N.H. — both Catholic schools — and Kent School, a Connecticut prep school affiliated with the Episcopal Church. And in June of that year, a federal appeals court ruled that four school districts with no public high school were required to retroactively pay students' tuition to Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school in South Burlington.
According to a spreadsheet provided by the Vermont Agency of Education earlier this year, five religious schools received public tuition dollars during fiscal year 2021, ranging from $5,475 to St. Francis Xavier School in Winooski to $65,928 to Mount St. Joseph Academy.

French's memo provides clear-cut information about what religious schools are eligible for public money.

In a directory of independent schools linked in the memo, 17 of the 90 independent schools approved by the state — and thus eligible for public dollars — are religious ones. All 17 are Christian; there are no Jewish or Muslim schools, for example.

The approved schools range in size and are located across the state. They include Bishop John A. Marshall School, a Roman Catholic day school in Morrisville that serves 135 pre-K through eighth grade students; Caledonia Christian School in St. Johnsbury that serves just seven first through eighth graders; Grace Christian School in Bennington, which has 146 K-12 students; and Mater Christi in Burlington, with 229 K-8 students.

Many of the approved religious schools state on their websites that religion is infused into all parts of the curriculum. For example, Grace Christian School's website states that "every subject is taught from a Christian perspective." The website of Mid Vermont Christian School in White River Junction, another approved school, reads: "True Christian education begins with the understanding that the Lordship of Jesus Christ pertains to every area of life. This means that every area of human knowledge is informed by Christ and by a Biblical perspective — even areas such as Mathematics."

Last legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have prohibited religious schools from using taxpayer dollars to support religious instruction. The legislation, S.219, cleared the Senate but stalled in the House after lawmakers said they wanted to see the outcome of the Carson v. Makin case before proceeding further.

Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington), chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he's determined to revive the bill next legislative session.

"This fight is not over yet," Campion said in an email to Seven Days on Wednesday. "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."

Correction, September 15, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the schools must also meet the state's educational quality standards.