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As Lawsuit Over Dual Enrollment Advances, Legislative Bills Address Issue

The Rice Memorial High School sign outside the school on a snowy, gray day.
Meg Malone
Two families from Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington are suing the state because they say kids from religious schools should be able to use the dual enrollment program.

Two families from Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington are suing the state, arguing religious schools should be allowed to use the dual enrollment program.

Under dual enrollment, high school students take college courses for credit, and the state picks up the tab. The program is closed to students from parochial schools, but there are two bills in the legislature that would open it up to all high school students.

When Rutland-Windsor Representative Jim Harrison was campaigning in the fall, a constituent asked him why kids from religious school weren’t allowed to use the dual enrollment program.

And after looking into it, he introduced a bill to change the law.

“To me it’s not a Democrat or a Republican issue, it’s just a fairness issue,” he said.

The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that using  public money to pay tuition to religious schools violates the state constitution.

But the way Harrison sees it, the public money goes to the college to pay for the class. The religious high school never touches a penny.

And so Harrison wants the legislature to take up the issue.

“We just need to do our business as we normally would. And if the court doesn’t like what we do, then they can certainly take issue that,” Harrison said. “And dual enrollment makes a lot of sense for a lot of students whether they’re going to public or private high schools.”

The two families who filed the suit declined to comment, and the principal of Rice Memorial, a Catholic school, also turned down an interview request.

"To me it's not a democrat or a republican issue it's just a fairness issue." - Rep. Jim Harrison, R. - Chittenden

The families are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a national nonprofit Christian group that’s handled some high profile cases.

They won the Hobby Lobby case that allows companies to opt out of birth control coverage in their health insurance, and the case covering a Colorado baker who didn’t want to make a cake for a gay couple.

Vermont Law School professor Peter Teachout says he’ll be watching how things progress.

“The legal organization that is actively involved on the plaintiff’s behalf is one that has brought significant challenges to state laws and federal laws that can be categorized as discriminating against religious organizations simply because they are religious organizations,” said Teachout. “So it is important potentially for that reason. And that’s why I am interested in it and going to be watching how it sugars out.”

Teachout has testified in the State House on the dual enrollment program.

And he says on Constitutional grounds, the state can decide to allow kids from religious schools to use dual enrollment.

Alliance Defending Freedom says Vermont’s dual enrollment law discriminates against children based on the religious status of the high school they attend.

"The issue is being framed in entirely the wrong way. It was never about kids going to religious schools, never." - Nicole Mace, Director Vermont School Boards Association

But Nicole Mace, who is director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says the law doesn’t single out kids from religious schools.

Mace says if a parent sends a student to a non-religious private school, and pays for it out of pocket, then dual enrollment is also closed off to that student.

“The issue is being framed in entirely the wrong way. It was never about kids going to religious schools, never,” Mace said. “The dual enrollment program is part of our public education system. And so the practical effect is, yes, students that attend religious schools don’t have access to that benefit, but students who go to St. Johnsbury Academy whose parents pay full tuition don’t have that benefit either.”

Vermont School Boards Association argued against allowing students who pay tuition at any private school to use dual enrollment when the law first passed in 2013.

And Mace says she’ll argue against it again if the bills are taken up this year.


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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