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Vt. Lawmakers Consider Opening Dual Enrollment To Religious School Students

The Vermont Statehouse with snow around it.
Henry Epp
VPR File
Vermont's dual enrollment program allows high school students to use vouchers to pay for college courses, and the Vermont Senate Education Committee is considering a bill that would allow students enrolled in a religious high school to use that program.

The Vermont Senate Committee on Education is considering a bill that would allow students in religious high schools to use the state's dual enrollment program.

Vermont started its dual enrollment program in 2013, which allows high school students to use vouchers to pay for college courses.

The program has been growing every year, and last year 2,660 vouchers were used by students in public and private high schools.

The state spent almost $1.5 million on the program in 2017, and not a penny of that state money was used by a student enrolled in one of Vermont's religious high schools.

Brian Senecal lives in Milton, and his daughter goes to Rice Memorial High School, a Roman Catholic school in South Burlington.

Senecal learned about the dual enrollment program this past summer, when his daughter went to a college fair and they found out she couldn't use the state money.

"I think that it's discriminatory against the kids who go to these schools," Senecal says.

His argument, and the one that members of the Senate Education Committee are contemplating, is that the public money is never directly used by a religious institution.

"To me, it's not a separation of church and state," Senecal says. "The money does not go to the school where the child, the student, is coming from. It goes to the college or university where they're going to attend classes. So to me it doesn't butt up against anything."

Senecal contacted his legislators, including Chittenden County Sen. Debbie Ingram, who's a member of the Senate Education Committee.

"I very strongly believe in the separation of church and state, but I do think that the Constitution also preserves the liberty of religious people," Ingram says. "So I felt his argument was persuasive, that his daughter was being singled out and not getting the same benefits that other children in Vermont do, and I thought that was unfair."

Ingram wrote the bill that is being debated in the Senate Education Comittee. It looks like the issue is headed toward the Senate floor, and Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion says he has concerns.

Campion says even though the public money isn't going directly into a religious school, the church could benefit anyway by maybe saving some of its own money and sending its students to a nearby college course.

"It's impossible to track the money," Campion told the Education Committee. "Is it going to support the vicar, or is it going to support a messaging around a woman's right to choose? That's my concern."

But Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout says the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of religious schools that accept state money for a variety of programs.

"The Court has held in a number of cases that providing public benefits to private religious schools — even though doing so allows or could allow some diversion of funds and resources otherwise devoted to those things, to religious education — does not violate the Constitution," Teachout says.

On a straw vote, every member of the Senate Education Committee supported the bill.

Disclosure: Rice Memorial High School is a VPR underwriter.

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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