Lawmakers propose restricting public tuition money to private schools

A bill in the Vermont Senate would cut off public tuition dollars to most independent schools, except for a handful of historic institutions and therapeutic schools. File photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Vermont lawmakers have put forth a proposal to restrict public dollars to private schools, a plan that could dramatically transform the state’s educational landscape if enacted.

A bill introduced in the Vermont Senate on Tuesday would prohibit most of the state’s private schools from receiving public tuition money, with the only exceptions being schools that serve students with disabilities and four historic institutions.

The bill would “ensure that public funding and public education are paired together in every case,” Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview. “And that there's public oversight of public dollars, and that our public schools are prioritized in our state K-12 education system.”

S.66 would require “sending districts” — those that do not operate public schools at all grade levels and send students elsewhere to be educated — to designate up to three schools for their students to attend. Designated schools could be public schools in or outside of the state, or private schools that meet limited criteria. 

Those criteria are intended as a carve-out for Vermont’s historic academies, a group of four prestigious private schools with long histories in the state: St. Johnsbury Academy; Burr and Burton Academy, in Manchester; Lyndon Institute; and Thetford Academy. Therapeutic schools, which exclusively serve students with disabilities, would also be exempt. 

Districts would have until 2028 to comply with most of the bill’s provisions. 

The bill comes roughly eight months after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case focused on private religious schools, one that has already impacted Vermont’s education system.

In more rural parts of Vermont, many towns are too small to operate public schools. Instead, students are eligible to receive public tuition money — sometimes called vouchers — to attend school elsewhere. Students can use those dollars to pay for tuition at public and private schools in and out of the state. 

For years, as a general rule, private religious schools were excluded from Vermont’s tuition system. But amid a series of Supreme Court decisions — most recently, Carson v. Makin, last June — that firewall has effectively disintegrated.

The prospect of taxpayer money subsidizing religious worship is an uncomfortable one for many secular Vermonters. It also raises legal questions, because Vermont’s constitution includes a clause that protects residents from being forced to support religious practices with which they disagree.

In the wake of the latest Supreme Court decision, lawmakers have vowed to tackle the issue this session. S.66 appears to be the first attempt to do so. 

Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said that the legislation “does a good job of being a stabilizing response to the change that was made by the Supreme Court.”

Ceglowski was speaking as a representative of the Education Equity Alliance, a recently formed group made up of the state’s organizations of principals, superintendents, school boards and the teachers union.  

“Our position is that taxpayer funds should be administered in a way that is equitable, accountable and transparent,” Ceglowski said. “And so that’s the key point for us with this legislation.”

But if signed into law, the bill would almost certainly have a profound impact on the state’s educational ecosystem.

Private schools — often called independent schools — receive millions of dollars in public tuition money from thousands of students in sending towns. 

For some, the loss of that money could pose an existential threat. 

"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. 

“Proposals like S.66 just widen the rural vs. urban divide by taking educational opportunities away from Vermont students in some of our most rural communities,” the statement said. “Rather than taking opportunities away from students and creating division, we should be working together to strengthen Vermont's education system for all Vermont students.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education.

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Peter D'Auria

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