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What other newspapers are saying: Future of school choice still murky — for now

A recent Supreme Court decision caught our attention. The decision stems from a case out of Maine, and points to school choice.

The Supreme Court ruled recently that Maine’s Agency of Education can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.

The 6-3 outcome could fuel a renewed push for school choice programs in some of the 18 states, Vermont included, which have so far not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education.

According to the Associated Press, the ruling is the latest in a line of decisions from the Supreme Court that have favored religion-based discrimination claims.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a conservative majority that the program violates the Constitution’s protections for religious freedoms, the AP reported.

“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise,” Roberts wrote.

According to the AP, the court’s three liberal justices dissented. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

Here in Vermont, a similar fight has taken shape. We have Barstow Unified Union School District v. Vermont Department of Education.

In March, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit Christian advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in Vermont’s district court on behalf of the Williams family of Chittenden, as well as the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, after the Williamses were denied tuition benefits to attend a local religious school. The Williams family wanted to send their children to Mount St. Joseph Academy, an independent Catholic school in Rutland.

In Vermont, a student living in a town without its own high school, like Chittenden, is able to apply for a tuition voucher to attend one elsewhere. For a student tuitioned at a public school, a town pays the receiving district the equivalent of that district’s average per pupil costs.

According to reporting by Herald reporter Jim Sabataso, for more than 20 years, religious schools have been excluded as a school choice option, which means families like the Williamses have had to pay tuition out of pocket.

The family made requests after the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and after the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of families from Rice Memorial High School in Burlington who were seeking a similar tuition benefit. After being denied, they took legal action.

While that ruling has ostensibly put religious schools back on the table, AOE guidance on the matter historically has been muddy. Last year, for example, the agency released a best practices document for schools but has since withdrawn those recommendations, according to the AOE.

We will have to wait and see what kind of pressure the Supreme Court decision puts on the agency. But suffice it to say, any ambiguity is likely to be erased and clarified in short order.

Vermont lawmakers, meanwhile, in anticipation of just such a ruling from the Supreme Court, introduced a bill this past session that aimed to place tighter restrictions on the flow of public dollars to religious schools. The bill, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House, proposed to require religious schools to certify they have “adequate safeguards” to ensure public tuition money will not be used “to support religious instruction or worship or the propagation of religious views,” and compelled schools to comply with federal and state nondiscrimination laws protecting, for example, LGBTQ+ students or those needing special education services.

What comes next will be hotly debated throughout upcoming campaigns, as well as across school districts statewide. The question in the meantime will remain: Who will pay for school choice?

— Rutland Herald

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