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Guest Column: Expanding parental choice in education

By John McClaughry

This year and the ensuing biennium are likely to be landmark years for the future of parental choice in education in Vermont.

In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana that if a state offers education tax credits, it must offer them to students choosing sectarian schools as well as public schools. The court said that excluding sectarian schools burdened the plaintiffs’ right to the free exercise of their religion.

That ruling triggered at least three similar cases by Vermont plaintiffs seeking to use state tax dollars to benefit their children in independent and sectarian schools. One case argues that parents in tuition towns — those without schools in certain grade levels — should be able to have their school districts pay their children’s tuition directly to a religious school. Last month, parents filed a suit to require Barstow Unified Union District to pay tuition for two children attending the same Roman Catholic school.

Another case from Glover argues that if any student is allowed to take school district tuition funding to a sectarian school, then all students, not just tuition town students, should also enjoy that “common benefit.” Meanwhile, a very similar case (Carson v. Makin) has made its way from Maine to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held oral argument in December.

But the government school lobby is urging the Vermont Legislature to put a stop to what could be a costly hemorrhage of students and money out of public schools. The four defenders of government schooling are the Vermont School Boards Association, Vermont Superintendents Association, Vermont Principals Association and the Vermont-NEA teachers’ union.

Their Feb. 23 joint letter to the Senate Education Committee sets out their argument that expanding parental choice brings “a morass of complicated legal and logistical questions.” Their central message comes through loud and clear: Forget funding of children: “Fund only public schools.”

The lobby groups anchor their case by saying that the state must give all students an “equitable, quality education in order to keep democracy thriving.” They believe that only government schools can deliver equitable, quality education. If parental choice is forced by the courts, non-public schools must be saddled with public school regulations controlling “curriculum, staff qualifications, open meetings and public records requirements, fiscal accountability and student assessment.”

What should be obvious to any parent is that when parents with effective choice find a school is inadequately providing what the parents think is a quality education, they can choose to send their children to another school, public, independent or religious, that does a better job.

But Senate Education Committee chair Brian Campion (D-Bennington) is all on board with the “government experts know best, parents know little or nothing” maxim. He was quoted in True North Reports as saying “we need to put some guard rails on (the practices of religious schools) to protect the students and the staff.”

Protect the students and the staff? Really? Somebody needs to explain to Mr. Campion and his committee members that when parents have effective choice, their children don’t need to be protected by overbearing government bureaucrats working to preserve their public school near-monopoly. They can choose another school.

When public schools start losing students, they need to improve the quality of their offerings, and jettison some ideological baggage, to win them back. But, the public school leadership wants to have the government eliminate the competition.

Wealthy parents can always send their children to St. George’s School (Howard Dean) or the Buxton School (Peter Shumlin). But the public school lobby simply can’t tolerate the state funding the children of everyone else to attend Rice Memorial.

I strongly support the Vermont’s constitutional provision against compelled taxpayer support of worship, including pervasively sectarian education. Making sectarian schools dependent on public appropriations sets up a dangerous political dynamic that our founding fathers were well aware would be seriously divisive.

But our constitution’s “no compelled support” clause speaks to individuals, not governments. It is satisfied when the state offers a pro rata rebate to taxpayers who object to tuition grants to faith-based schools.

Tuition grants to parents to choose what’s best for their children will force complacent public schools to respond to competition, instead of coasting along untroubled by dissatisfied customers who can afford nowhere else to turn.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute, online at www.ethanallen.org.