Ever since the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Carson v. Makin last year, public dollars here in Vermont have been flowing to private schools – including religious schools – that are allowed to discriminate against students and staff.
In Carson, the conservatives on the court said that if states have voucher schemes – like Vermont – that send public dollars to private schools, those vouchers must be available to ALL private schools. The court made it clear that if Vermont wants to stem the flow of public money to schools that discriminate, it must limit its voucher scheme to public schools. Period.
Despite warnings from defenders of public schools, the Vermont legislature has done nothing to end the state’s support of schools that are allowed to discriminate. In the meantime, the State Board of Education is exempting private schools from the same ethnic studies standards public schools have to follow. This same board also thwarted the will of lawmakers when it rushed to approve public funding of two new private schools days before a moratorium on such approvals took effect.
But it’s not too late for the leadership of the legislative majority to show that public education is worth preserving. We urge lawmakers this year to enact legislation that revises our 1860s-era school voucher scheme in a way that respects Vermont’s values and is consistent with the Carson decision. Primarily, lawmakers must pass a bill that respects the separation of church and state and prevents the flow of public money to schools that are allowed to discriminate.
In short, lawmakers must ensure that public money flows only to public schools.
And they must act now; enemies of public schools are already hard at work.
In a letter, a group of eight state lawmakers accused the board of “effectively replicating an unjust ‘separate but equal’ approach” between public and private schools. “If you’re receiving public funds, then you should play by the same rules. Full stop,” said Rep. Mary-Katherine Stone, D/P-Burlington, one of the letter’s signatories and the clerk of the Vermont House Committee on Education. “Especially when it comes to rules that impact anti-discrimination.”
Sending taxpayer money to institutions that lack public oversight also gives us pause. Our public schools are governed by boards, composed of individuals elected by the voters. While it’s not always the case, these bodies — when functioning well — provide transparency and accountability. And when they fall short, we can make our voices heard — either at a board meeting or at the ballot box. With independent schools, we have no such recourse.
Cortman, Alliance Defending Freedom's senior counsel, said it's likely that more litigation will be coming in Vermont, especially if the legislature tries to further restrict public money to religious schools, as it has telegraphed it might. "As long as these aggressive policies continue to be enacted," Cortman said, "whether it's by the legislature or the Agency of Education or local school districts — whomever happens to be taking these actions that violate a client's constitutional rights — we'll certainly be looking to continue to sue the state and its agencies or subdivisions."
But the decision drew criticism from Vermont’s teachers union, which released a blistering press release after the meeting. “Sadly, the board has effectively sanctioned a separate but unequal education system for a significant number of students outside our public schools,” Don Tinney, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, said in the release. “In doing so, it will expose these children to a higher risk of inequitable and discriminatory treatment and substandard curricular requirements and teaching practices.”
Vermont-NEA believes that the legislature has a simple choice, Tinney said. “There’s a solution to this violation of the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for the separation of church and state. And there’s a solution to funding discrimination with public money – restrict taxpayer dollars from going anywhere but our public schools.”
PAID FOR BY VERMONT NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION