Vermont is facing lawsuits over its education voucher program. Judges must decide whether tuition aid should be available to all students, no matter what school they select. Public education advocates worry the cases could funnel more dollars into private—including religious—schools.
Under Vermont’s system, students in communities without schools may attend schools of their choice and receive state funds to do so. The system’s guidelines include approved private institutions too.
Not good enough, says the Liberty Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that fights for school choice. Lawyers at LJC insist Vermont’s system is unconstitutional. Why? Because it’s not available to all students in the state—only the ones in rural areas without schools.
The state’s constitution says Vermont must “provide every school-age child in Vermont an equal educational opportunity.” It prohibits the state from adopting policies that deprive children of that opportunity.
LJC attorney Brian Kelsey says, “The town tuitioning program is an exceptional benefit to families, but it is fundamentally unfair to only offer it some families and not to all of Vermonters.”
Maine and New Hampshire have similar programs for students in communities without schools. The students may attend public or private schools of their choice—as long as they’re non-religious. Those states are facing lawsuits too.
The Vermont suit comes just six months after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Montana school case. Justices ruled that states must include religious schools in programs that send public money to private education.
“A state need not [fund] private education,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “but once it decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools because they are religious.”
Following the Montana decision, three Vermont families filed lawsuits. They call denying the tuition benefit for sending children to religious schools unconstitutional.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. She calls the Vermont cases a “cynical attempt” to use the Montana case “to syphon even more public money into private hands.” She says a win for school choice would “set a damaging precedent.”
Indeed, if the lawsuit succeeds, LJC lawyers say they’ll file legal challenges in other states with school choice programs.
Tim Keller works for the Institute for Justice. He advocates for government support of religious schools. “The state needs to be neutral,” he declares. “They can’t say, ‘We like secular schools and not religious schools.’ That’s up to the parents.”