This commentary is by Charlotte Albright, a resident of Lyndonville.
For the last couple of weeks, Vermonters have been reeling over proposals by the Legislature to dismantle a century-old voucher system that allows families who live in communities without public schools to send children into other districts to attend public or private nonsectarian schools at state expense.
To be fair, lawmakers didn't choose to wade into that hot water. They were forced into it by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring all school choice programs to include religious as well as nonreligious schools.
That blurring of the line between church and state flies in the face of Vermont's own constitution prohibiting state dollars from funding religious teaching.
Two bills took a sledgehammer to the problem. Rather than bring religious schools under the school voucher umbrella, the sponsors of S.66 and H.258 proposed to end the school voucher program altogether.
In the wake of an understandable outcry, especially from small rural communities that would be devastated by such a sweeping change, lawmakers are fortunately rethinking that all-or-nothing approach.
I hope they'll heed Vermont Law School Professor Peter Teachout, who testified before the education committee on Feb. 3, 2021. He suggested then, and again on Vermont Edition's March 2, 2023, program, that in order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling requiring all school choice programs to include religious as well as nonreligious schools, Vermont's voucher system could be tweaked to pass constitutional muster with the following wording:
“It is the policy of this school district to authorize payment of monthly requests for reimbursement of tuition from all (otherwise qualified) independent schools, regardless of religious status or affiliation, upon receipt of certification that none of the tuition for which reimbursement is requested has been or will be used to support religious instruction, worship, other religious activity, or the propagation of religious views.”
Extending public funding to private schools only if they do not embed religious doctrine and practice into their curricula, welcoming all applicants regardless of creed or background, seems both constitutional and workable.
It remains to be seen how many of those academies will be willing to separate religious from nonreligious instruction, permitting students to choose only the latter, but that will be their decision to make.
Without a lot of fanfare, Maine has quietly adjusted its system along the lines Teachout has proposed, and Vermont has already laid similar groundwork. In his September 2022 letter to school superintendents, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French wrote, "In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carson v. Makin, we are writing to advise you of the following: School districts may not deny tuition payments to religious approved independent schools or religious independent schools that meet educational quality standards based on the Vermont Constitution’s Compelled Support Clause, Vermont Constitution Chapter I, Article 3.”
The key words there: "educational quality standards." We can clarify those standards in an equitable and constitutional way, as long as we apply them consistently, and not with a heavy hand, to both sectarian and nonsectarian schools.
This is not an either-or crisis. It's a "both-and" opportunity to improve education throughout the state, and it's based on sound legal footing.