The Vermont Senate voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would set limits on public money going to private and religious schools. A final vote on the bill, S.219, is expected later this week, after which the measure would move to the House.
Vermont students living in “choice towns” — municipalities across the state that don’t operate schools at all grade levels — can use public tuition money to attend private schools.
Recent federal court rulings have affirmed that religious schools are eligible for that money, even though the state requires “adequate safeguards” against it going toward religious purposes.
The bill approved Wednesday aims to define “adequate safeguards” and to impose conditions on schools that receive that money.
“This committee believed it was essential, at this moment in time, with our abilities, representing our Vermont values — we would protect students,” said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Committee on Education and sponsor of the bill.
It would require private schools, often called independent schools, to follow all anti-discrimination laws that currently apply to public schools. And it would prohibit religious schools from using public tuition dollars “to support religious instruction, religious indoctrination, religious worship, or the propagation of religious views.”
The bill essentially gives the state Board of Education the authority to enforce those requirements. Per the bill, the board “shall establish and maintain a process to receive, investigate, and resolve allegations of noncompliance with these requirements.”
All private schools wishing to receive that public tuition money would have to enter into a contract with the board “agreeing to comply” with the law.
Provisions of the bill would also apply to dual enrollment students, who take some classes at universities or colleges. In those cases, the bill would impose similar restrictions on those institutes of higher education.
The bill also bars students from attending private schools in other states and countries, outside of Quebec and the states that border Vermont. But the legislation would make an exception for students with special needs who attend specialized independent schools.
Currently, about 100 students receive public money to attend out-of-state private schools.
In order to receive public tuition money, however, those schools would have to affirm that they followed “all antidiscrimination laws applicable to public schools in the state or country where the independent school is located.”
Those schools would also be required to enter into a contract with the Board of Education, and could also not use that money to support religious purposes.
The Senate Education Committee spent weeks hashing out the provisions of the bill. But on the Senate floor, it passed with little fanfare.
The only lawmaker to speak out against it was Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who called for the state to stop sending public money to religious schools altogether.
“I'm finding it difficult to support this bill, because it further entangles our public school system and our public financing system with private and — more egregiously — religious schools,” Hardy said.
The state needs to find “a long-term solution that will not permit public money to be used for the support of private education or religious education,” Hardy said. “This is feasible within our system.”
But Campion said that, after days of testimony from legal experts, the education committee had decided that option was not feasible.
“The committee felt that we did not want to disrupt the educational landscape of our students,” he said.
The bill ultimately passed by voice vote with only a handful of nays.
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