Religous school funding up for debate

Dear Editor,

In early May, during a discussion of H.483, a bill that would define Vermont’s response to the Carson v. Makin decision, Senate Education Chair Brian Campion said “Given all the issues we have in this state, this is the biggest most important bill for them? I expected better. I would much rather be talking about other things.”

By “them,”  he meant me. Or, more accurately, the organization I belong to – the Vermont School Boards Association. Together with the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont Principals Association and the Vermont National Education Association we have been actively engaged with the Legislature to develop Vermont’s response to the landmark Supreme Court case Carson V. Makin. 

A brief refresher of Carson v. Makin: In June 2022, the Supreme Court ruled on the case from Maine that states do not need to fund private schools but when they do they cannot exclude religious schools. It was an immediate erosion of the commonly held belief of

the separation of church and state. The decision has direct implications in Vermont. Months after the ruling the Vermont Agency of Education sent a memo to school administrators with guidance that school districts could no longer deny payments to religious schools. All of this made more confounding when considering Vermont’s constitutional compelled support clause: “no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to ….. support any place of worship.” 

Another complicating factor is that for decades, some Vermont towns that do not operate schools have been sending public money to private schools. As we reflect on what changes our system of public education needs to comply with both the Supreme Court decision as well as the Vermont constitution, we’ve been confronted with another reality: our current tuitioning system is not equitable.

Private schools in and out of Vermont are receiving public tax dollars yet are not being held to the same standards as public schools when it comes to spending those dollars. 

Advocates hoping to leverage the Supreme Court decision and expand public funding of religious education have their sights set on Vermont. How we approach this issue and what we decide will have repercussions nationwide. Our Brave Little State could help determine the future of public education spending nationwide. 

So, to answer Chair Campion’s rhetorical question “Is this the most important bill for us?”. Yes, it is. And it should be for Senate Education as well. 

It appears that Chair Campion is not able or not willing to comprehend the significance of the issues facing Vermont public education in the wake of Carson v. Makin. His statements are a clear indication that he is willing to jeopardize our entire system of public education in Vermont in order to maintain the status quo of our private schools and tuitioning system. Despite the fact that they are not held accountable for the public money they receive, do not publicly report student outcome data and are not governed by a school board with accountabity to the community, taxpayers.

Despite attempts by Senators Gulick and Hashim to move the discussion and H.483 forward, it appears that the Chair has no intention of bringing the bill up for a vote and moving it on to the full Senate during these final days of the legislative session. 

The end result is that students and families should prepare for uncertainty in public education in Vermont, taxpayers should prepare to see more of their dollars being spent with little to no oversight and the state should prepare for lawsuits and associated legal fees. 

Our lack of response on this issue is telling.

Neil Odell,

president, Vermont School Boards Association

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