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Recent SCOTUS ruling could lead more public funding toward Vt. religious schools

The front of the U.S. Supreme Court is pictured.
Douglas Rissing
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Carson v. Makin changes the legal landscape for the school choice movement.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on a Maine school tuition program that could have significant impacts in Vermont.

Under the program, the state of Maine pays for kids in towns not large enough to build their own schools to attend schools elsewhere, both public and private.

In Maine, some religious schools qualify for the program because they meet the state’s educational standards. Meanwhile, the state was withholding tuition from students attending schools that didn’t provide a secular education. But the high court decided that practice unconstitutionally discriminated against religion.

Vermont is the only other state with a similar tuition program for sparsely populated areas, often called “sending towns.” And now, it might be more difficult to prevent public funding from going to schools for explicitly religious instruction.

To talk about how the Supreme Court’s ruling on Carson v. Makin could impact the Green Mountain State, VPR’s Grace Benninghoff spoke with state Senate Education Chairman Brian Campion, a Democrat who represents Bennington. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: Now, a Supreme Court decision two years ago already meant religious schools could receive public tuition dollars, which has been happening in Vermont. So can you explain what last week's decision changes here?

A man wearing a suit smiles for the camera.
Vermont Legislature
State Senate Education Chairman Brian Campion.

State Sen. Brian Campion: Sure. And to make it clear, I'm not an attorney and I'm learning about this with our staff attorneys right now. But really, the situation prior to Carson is that we, as a state, believed that we could put some real safeguards around dollars going to religious schools and say, "If you're going to take these public dollars, you cannot use them for religious purposes — worship, you know, proselytizing, paying a minister's salary, that kind of thing." But that is the big difference. Now, Carson is saying that can happen.

Could this ruling open up the door for more taxpayer money going to religious schools, including some that might have policies discriminating against students who aren't religious, or who identify as LGBTQ+?

So last week's decision is going to really broaden how dollars are going to flow now to religious schools — it's going to make it much easier than it has been in the past. We have had these kinds of court decisions made in Vermont since 1999, even our state Supreme Court. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court started to really erode this separation of church and state and let dollars go to religious schools. But this really opens the floodgates. So the situation that we're in right now, in our state, is to see can we put any safeguards around these dollars within the decision that was made in the Carson case?

You introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have changed which independent schools could receive public money. Can you explain what you were trying to do with that bill?

So last year we passed a bill — the House ended up not taking it up, but [the Senate Education Committee] and the full Senate passed S.219, which really put some safeguards around religious schools from using public tuition dollars to support religious instruction, and religious indoctrination and religious worship. We said those dollars cannot be used for those purposes. We also required that independent schools — all independent schools that receive public dollars — comply with all federal and state anti-discrimination laws applicable to Vermont public schools.

So we we've been in this territory for a while. The state has, in some ways, I think it's safe to say has ignored what we really should have been doing for a while now — which is putting safeguards around how these dollars are used. But this recent case certainly makes it worse, and it's going to make it harder. That being said, what we did last year in S.219, by really building a contract between the State Board of Education and these independent schools, is the first step. And it's one that I wish we'd passed because we would be in a better situation than we are right now.

But I'm I'm certainly committed, and I believe my Senate colleagues are also committed, to returning in January, and again, trying to, within the constitutional limits that Carson has given us, now put some safeguards around this. So if you are going to take these dollars, we don't want you to discriminate against faculty, staff and students. And we want — and this is going to be the harder piece of it reading through Carson — we don't want these dollars used for religious purposes, that is going to be harder than it was prior to the Carson decision. But we still believe we can build a contract between the State Board of Education and our independent schools, all of our independent schools, including our religious schools and saying, if you're going to take public dollars, you're not going to be allowed to discriminate against faculty, staff and students.

Are there any other options on the table, in addition to this type of bill that you introduced in the last session?

As you know, we have a really interesting, unique educational landscape in Vermont where we have our independent academies and we have other independent schools. And one of the things that could happen — but I think most Vermonters don't want it to happen — is if you stop all funding going to any independent school, then that may prevent dollars from then flowing to religious schools. And I could be wrong on this, but we were faced with the situation this year, and generally Vermonters respect and appreciate the landscape that we offer here in Vermont. It's not dissimilar from Maine, where you do have sending towns; you have old historic academies; you have independent schools; and you have some special education schools. I don't think Vermonters want to cut that all together.

I believe what Vermonters are going to want to do is find a way, if possible, to keep religious dollars away from schools that discriminate. That might be the best we possibly can do. In other words, we may find that, given the Carson case, schools are going to take dollars, and they're going to be able to use them for religious purposes. And that dollars are going to move much more freely. But we do think we can build contracts which will prevent the discrimination piece. And that, I'm hoping, we will return and do.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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