Commentary – Vermont Senate Bill 219 on course to hand a weapon to the religious right

Vermont has a proud history of providing high-quality, equitable public education for children in our communities. It’s why our equity gaps are narrower than in many states. It’s why many communities fight hard to keep their public schools.

Recently, conservative national litigation groups have targeted Vermont. One of these groups is the Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a hate group. The apparent goal is to redefine “religious freedom” as the right to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to promote religion, including in schools that won’t hire or serve LGTBQ individuals or otherwise discriminate.

OpinionSo far, they’ve succeeded. And, these lawsuits underscore the extent to which Vermont is drifting away from our core values of democratic fairness and fiscal frugality.

Vermont’s constitution requires the state to maintain a “competent number of schools” in each town “unless the general assembly permits other provisions for the convenient instruction of youth.” This governmental obligation is “instituted for the common benefit” of citizens, not the particular advantage of a subset of that community.

For rural communities with populations too small for a robust public school, at least at the high school level, Vermont statute provided for payment of tuition for a public education replacement.

Vermont’s current voucher model was birthed in 1991. Before that, tuition students enrolled in public schools in neighboring districts or in “public schools without school boards,” as Vermont’s academies were described in statute. The state allowed funding of academies through tuitions, to advance the public purpose of education for the common benefit. Academies conformed to most standards and rules for public schools.

In 1991, this changed. The legislature revised statute to remove references to academies as public schools and allowed them to choose to become public schools (as Bellows Free Academy did); public school-approved “independent” schools (as Thetford Academy did); or private “independent” schools (as did the rest). Academies that became “independent” schools, although still dependent on tax dollars, were allowed to abandon a public mission and take taxpayer funds to a private mission—an astonishing potential transfer of public resources to private purposes.

Every time a public good is privatized, people lose democratic rights over that good. Forced payment of vouchers to religious schools brought that to a head, revealing how far vouchers moved us away from our core Vermont values.

As Justice Roberts wrote last year, “A state need not subsidize private education, but once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

By abandoning our constitutional commitment to common benefits, the legislature turned school budgets into vending machines for private interests. Taxpayers statewide fund community public schools, but now, school budgets also are compelled to fund programs that undermine both unity and affordability.

Your tax dollars support private schools that use test scores, interviews, discipline records, religious faith pledges and fees to pick and choose who to accept, effectively taking public dollars but refusing to educate the public’s children. They exploit equity gaps to amplify inequity, and concentrate kids who “aren’t a good fit” in other schools. One excluded a child for vaping.

Your tax dollars fund a private school that states its programs are ill-suited to students with disabilities, and which promises to help students “seek God through Jesus Christ and his Church” by weaving faith into all aspects of life at the school.

Your tax dollars support a for-profit “therapeutic” school whose official progress report provided a grade on this proficiency: “Don’t be an a**hole.” Leadership at another school asserted the right to disenroll children with objectionable parents—in this case, anti-critical race theory, anti-mask parents.

Under newly proposed state board rules, private schools still can choose which students with disabilities they’ll enroll. That’s a bitter pill for children who aren’t allowed to follow friends to the school of their choice.

Vermont’s voucher system—like voucher systems in Florida and Indiana—is undemocratic.

What evidence we have suggests that when schools choose their students, “choice” becomes expensive sorting of kids, not better performance.

Even Milton Friedman, the granddaddy of vouchers, said, “In small communities and rural areas, the number of children may be too small to justify more than one school of reasonable size, so that competition cannot be relied on to protect the interests of parents and children.”

Legislation currently pending in the Vermont Senate doesn’t provide this protection and may make matters worse. By focusing on what private schools can’t do with tax dollars (teach religion), rather than what they must do (provide a high quality, equitable public education), the current bill risks handing the U.S. Supreme Court the case it needs to redefine “religious freedom” as the freedom to use tax dollars to discriminate. And anyway, protections don’t apply out of state.

Vermont legislators can fix this by going back to Vermont values of neighborly fairness and frugality. Treat public education and public education dollars as a common benefit, not a fight for private advantage. And, don’t use school budgets to create gated communities, including in out-of-state prep schools and private schools that close taxpayer-funded doors on our children.

Rebecca Holcombe is a former Vermont secretary of education and a resident of Norwich.