Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Vermont Moves To Restrict School Vouchers

Vermont, much like Maine, has long had school vouchers. It's a system that makes sense in a state where many rural communities do not have schools of their own. Instead, those students get tuition paid to the school of their choice. That program has, in the past, never included private religious schools.

That was working fine until Carson v. Makin, the case in which the Supreme Court declared that if Maine is going to have a school voucher program, that program has to include private religious schools as well. 

The ruling has obvious implications for Vermont, but Vermont has an extra wrinkle-- a constitutional clause that says residents can't be made to support religious practices with which they disagree. 

Now a bill has been proposed to fix the problem, and it represents one of the first attempts in any state to actually slap restrictions on an existing voucher program.

S.66 is an attempt to more closely define how the vouchers may be used. "Sending districts," those that have no public schools of their own, would designate up to three schools for their students to attend. Those schools could be other public schools or select private schools that meet certain state criteria (these can be in or out of state). There's an exception for Vermont's four historic academies-- a set of long-standing private schools. Also, schools that have special programs for serving students with special needs would also be allowed as choices over and above the district's designated schools.

This is bad news for many of the private schools that have done well under the former system.

"S.66 would completely dismantle a system that has successfully delivered high quality educational opportunities for rural Vermont students for over a century,” the Vermont Independent Schools Association said in a statement emailed by Mill Moore, the organization’s executive director.

But Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the state school boards association and a member of the Education Equity Alliance, says “Our position is that taxpayer funds should be administered in a way that is equitable, accountable and transparent."

The old system in Vermont may well be missed, but the tough truth here is that no matter what, it is going away, either to be replaced with a system that requires taxpayers to foot the bill for private religious education, or a system like the one proposed in this bill. This was always one of the possible outcomes of the Carson ruling--that states would more tightly control any voucher programs in order to maintain accountability for voucher schools and protection for taxpayers. It will be interesting to see if Vermont's model catches on there, or anywhere else.

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