State News

Vermont parents sue state over unequal access to education

A group of Vermont parents are suing the state and local school districts over unequal access to education under the state’s 150-year-old town tuitioning system. The parents say the program violates the state constitution by allowing children residing in certain school districts to attend the school of their choice and denying the same right to others.

According to a Jan. 5 press release, attorneys from the Liberty Justice Center filed a lawsuit in state court against the State of Vermont, the state’s secretary of education, the state board of education and four of Vermont’s public school districts — Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District, Bellows Falls Union High School District, Lake Region Union Elementary School District and First Branch Unified School District. The Liberty Justice Center is a national, nonprofit law firm that fights to protect school choice across the country and is best known for its 2018 U.S. Supreme Court victory in Janus v. AFSCME.

At issue are inequities in access to Vermont’s town tuitioning system. The nation’s oldest publicly funded school choice system, dating back to the early 1800s, affords some students full access to educational choice, others limited access and others no access.

“Vermont’s town tuitioning system works well for the favored few who happen to live in a location where it is available,” said Brian Kelsey, senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center. “Unfortunately, only 17% of Vermont school children are afforded some form of choice under the present system. Those who are ineligible are at a distinct, and unconstitutional, disadvantage.”

The families represented in the lawsuit live in districts where their local public school is ill-suited to serving their children’s unique needs. They say the current town tuitioning system violates the state constitution and ask that the common benefit of town tuitioning be granted to all students in Vermont.

For one family, their disabled 15-year-old son, who requires a wheelchair and assistance with basic, daily activities, suffered neglect from his assigned public elementary school. Once he was forgotten in the bathroom. During his 7th- and 8th-grade years, town tuitioning enabled him to attend an independent school, where he thrived. His parents, Sarah and Louis Vitale, now are struggling to afford the school’s tuition after his 8th-grade year, because their local school district denies Town Tuitioning for 9th through 12th grades.

“Our son has so many challenges to overcome. Getting access to a school willing and able to meet his needs should not be one of them,” said parent Sara Vitale. “His school has treated him as a welcomed member of the school community rather than as an imposition, and that has made all the difference in his confidence and success.”

“The Vitales are a prime example of why Vermont’s inequitable school choice system must be fixed,” said their attorney, Brian Kelsey.

Liberty Justice Center is working on the case with Vermont attorney Deborah Bucknam.

“Vermont families deserve equal access to education,” said Bucknam. “This lawsuit is a step towards recognizing the families left behind by town tuitioning inequities with a goal of expanding choice for all Vermonters.”

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