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Vermont school choice system scrutinized as Legislature responds to U.S. Supreme Court decision

Members of the Long Tail School community in Dorset gather in an auditorium to talk about school choice.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
The Long Trail School in Dorset held a rally to get parents up to speed on a new bill that would end Vermont's school choice system.

Vermont has one of the oldest and least restrictive school choice programs in the country. And following a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, more of that money than ever is going to religious schools. However, state lawmakers are considering two bills that would make significant changes to the state school voucher program.

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman to find out more about how the court decision has created a major decision point for Vermont's schools, state leaders and legislators. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let's start by talking a little bit about school choice to begin with, why does the history of school choice go back so far here in Vermont? How popular is it now?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Vermont's school choice program, you know, goes all the way back to 1869. And it's really rooted in our rural communities. So back in the day, we had all these hundreds of very small schoolhouses, and they were in rural, pretty poor communities. And those towns couldn't build their own high school. So the Legislature said they could take their public money, and they could go to any non-religious school inside or outside of the state — and remember that, non-religious, that's going to be an important part of this discussion.

So over time, it's really grown into being really one of the most lenient school choice systems in the country. Families really take advantage of it. They can use that money to send their kids to nearby private schools. There are 80 towns that have school choice. That's about a third of the school districts.

The system really grew up around four "historic academies." So you have St. Johnsbury Academy, Burr and Burton in Manchester, Lyndon Institute and Thetford Academy — those are larger, more established private schools, and they make good use of the voucher program. A lot of local kids use that public money to go there. But over time, those public dollars have encouraged, if you will, a lot of growth in small independent schools. And that's including a lot of these smaller therapeutic programs that serve students with special needs. There are more than 100 of these small private schools in Vermont, and that's a lot for a small state like ours.

The U.S. Supreme Court just last year ruled that states cannot keep public money away from religious schools if the state, like Vermont, has a school choice program. How did that decision by the U.S. Supreme Court affect Vermont's education system?

For more than 100 years, Vermont families weren't allowed to use the public money at religious schools. So last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case out of Maine — Maine has a very similar program. The case is Carson v. Makin. And the conservative court said that states can no longer exclude religious schools. If the state has a school choice system, they have to allow religious schools to be part of it. So it's really having a profound effect on Vermont's here, and we're watching it play out in real time.

More from NPR: Supreme Court rules Maine's tuition assistance program must cover religious schools

The State Board of Education has tried to address this. They wrote a new rule last year, that requires religious schools to sign an agreement that they won't discriminate against kids based on gender and sexual orientation or marital status. At the State Board meeting this week, two religious schools said they refuse to follow that. And that's kind of a side thing we're going to be watching is whether this rule will have any effect.

Seems like tensions are ramping up here. And now there are two bills in the Legislature now that would change how public education money is used for private schools in Vermont. What's the gist of those bills?

They would completely rewrite how public education dollars can be used at private, independent schools. These bills, they carve out exceptions for those large private schools I mentioned — St. Johnsbury, Burr and Burton, Lyndon and Thetford. But if the bills pass as written, all of these other religious and non-religious schools would no longer be able to take nearby kids who need to use public money to attend. I spoke with Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy. She's the lead sponsor of the Senate bill.

"Unfortunately, because of the actions of the United States Supreme Court, they have drawn certain lines in the sand that make it very, very difficult to parse between different types of private schools," Hardy said. "So we are in a position where we really, really need to say that we are only providing taxpayer public funds to public schools."

"Unfortunately, because of the actions of the United States Supreme Court, they have drawn certain lines in the sand that make it very, very difficult to parse between different types of private schools. So, we are in a position where we really, really need to say that we are only providing taxpayer public funds to public schools."
Ruth Hardy, Addison County Senator

You went to an event at the Long Trail School in Dorset recently. That is one of the schools that really benefits from the current system. Tell us how the private school community is reacting to all this?

Well, they're really freaked out, you know, they think they're being dragged into this national culture war, and they are, in some ways.

The administration at the Long Trail School, they really went out of their way to say that they'd happily sign an agreement. They don't discriminate. They accept all of their staff and all of their kids. But the US Supreme Court says, if you have a private school voucher system, you have to give the money to religious schools. Senator Hardy told me it's unfortunate that these private schools will be affected by this change if it goes through.

The small private schools are beginning to organize. They're going to fight this bill really hard. I spoke to the head of the school, Colin Igoe.

"Because of the way our Legislature works is, it's quiet, and then it happens really fast, because it's a short window," Igoe said. "So thankfully, we I do feel like we're at the beginning. But I think it's really, really important to be educated, to be engaged and to be aware, so that was the goal tonight. With the understanding probably there's more to come."

Sen. Hardy told me this is a priority for her. The companion bill was introduced to the House Education Committee this week. And I think we're going to be hearing a lot about this in the coming few weeks.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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