Commentary: Exterminating Independent School Tuitioning

The frightening prospect of having to tuition pupils to parent-chosen sectarian schools has motivated the “Education Equity Alliance”, formerly known as the Public Education Blob, to demand passage of S.66, to exterminate tuitioning altogether.

Vermont’s long history of parental choice in education will come to a crashing end in 2028 if a bill designed and backed by the “Educational Equity Alliance” makes it through the legislature.

What was informally known around Montpelier as “the Public Education Blob” has now become the “Educational Equity Alliance”. Its four components are the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont Principals Association, and the biggest gorilla, the 13,000 member Vermont-NEA.

All four of the EEA member organizations staunchly oppose parents being allowed to send their children to independent schools at public expense.  What do parents know? Only credentialed public school educators and bureaucrats know what’s good for these children! If parents don’t like the offerings of their local government school monopoly, they can speak up at school board meetings. When last year some in Virginia did just that, the National School Boards Association demanded that Attorney General Garland dispatch the FBI to collect the names of objectors.

Under Vermont law dating to 1869, the parents of those pupils in tuition towns (now totaling 6,063) have the choice to direct the school board to tuition their children to public or approved independent schools, in or out of the state. Half of these pupils attend independent, and half public, schools. “Approved” means that the independent school must be comparable in curriculum, fiscal management and observance of civil rights to ordinary public schools. Until last year, tuition town parents could not choose sectarian independent schools like Bishop Rice High School in South Burlington and Good Shepherd School in St. Johnsbury.

But last June a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Carson v. Makin) held that if a state (Maine) tuitioned pupils to nonsectarian independent schools, as in Vermont, refusing to tuition children to sectarian independent schools constitutes a violation of their right to free exercise of religion.  Thus parents in tuition towns can choose a faith-based approved independent school to receive public tuition payments. Education Secretary Daniel French so advised the towns before the current school year.

The public school organizations have never been happy about tuitioning, but had no choice but to accept it for purely practical reasons in a state with many small rural towns that couldn’t support a K-12 public system. But now, alarmed by the State’s required compliance with the Court decision, the four organizations created the EEA to persuade the legislature to end tuition payments to any independent school. More than half of its 82-page bill (S.66) is devoted to exterminating the concept of “approved independent school” from Vermont’s education statutes altogether.

There are some minor exceptions, such as schools for special education pupils, now insensitively labelled “therapeutic schools”, and Career Technical Education centers operated under contract by independent schools. There is also a politically necessary (and judicially suspect) carveout for the four nonsectarian academies that serve communities that have no public high schools: St. Johnsbury Academy, Lyndon Institute, Burr & Burton Academy and Thetford Academy. (They can be brought under full state control later on.)

The EEA bill requires the school boards in tuition towns -  not the parents - to designate three or fewer favored schools for their pupils to attend: public schools outside of the district, tech centers, and the therapeutic schools. Pupils now attending other currently approved independent schools can continue in those schools until 2028, or until the school board imposes designation, whichever happens sooner.

The EEA is buoyed by the fact that the Vermont legislature is firmly controlled by Democrats in no small measure thanks to the political support of the Vermont NEA, and now has little fear of the veto power of a Republican Governor. Its bill is sponsored by eleven Senators, all Democrats.

As Vermont Digger education reporter Peter D’Auria writes, “For some [independent schools] the loss of that [tuition] money could pose an existential threat. “ Just so, and the Educational Equity Alliance, deploring the idea of provider competition and customer choice, will certainly not lament their disappearance.

 This retreat from Vermont’s long practice of parental choice for their children in tuition towns will be a disgraceful victory for a public school monopoly that puts its own interests far ahead of the interests of the pupils that Vermont education is supposed to serve.

It may not succeed. Parents in tuition towns are mounting a full throated defense of their choice of schools that they believe do a better job of educating their children. They cherish their opportunity to choose what’s best for their children, and they know what happened to Goliath.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He served as vice chair of the Senate Education committee, and in 1990 authored the expansion of tuitioning to grades one to six in independent schools that S.66 would repeal.


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