Six Bills Would Expand Choice in Vermont

Published May 1, 2003
Suit Aims to Open Choice to Religious Schools

Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2002 ruling in the Zelman case upheld the inclusion of religious schools in the Cleveland voucher program, the Vermont Department of Education continues to bar religious schools from the Green Mountain State’s much older voucher program, called “tuitioning.”

The state supreme court ruled in 1999 that tuitioning to religious schools is unconstitutional in Vermont because Vermont’s constitution is more restrictive than the federal constitution on issues of church and state.

On March 20, Richard Komer, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, announced the filing of a federal lawsuit aimed at overturning the 1999 ruling and reinstating religious schools in the tuitioning program. The suit was filed on behalf of three Vermont families who were denied tuitioning funds for religious schools.

“Vermont’s tuitioning program offers school choice to everyone except parents who choose religious schools,” said Komer. “The program should nto favor religion, but it can’t discriminate against religion either.”

According to the Institute, barring parents from selecting religious schools in the tuitioning program is a violation of the parents’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech, and of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Six bills introduced in the 2003 session of the Vermont legislature would expand parental choice in education:

H. 57 — Special Education Vouchers: Sponsored by Rep. Carl Haas, this bill would create a Rutland and Chittenden County demonstration program where local school districts would give vouchers to special education students to attend other public or independent schools.

H. 77 — Charter Schools: Sponsored by Rep. Frank Mazur, this bill would authorize school districts, the State Board of Education, the University of Vermont, or a state college to create charter schools.

S. 121 — Public School Choice: Sponsored by Sens. Hull Maynard, Kevin Mullin, and Mark Shepard, this bill would require districts to pay 90 percent of the general state support grant to other public schools chosen by parents.

H. 198 — Tax Credit for Educational Assistance Organizations: Sponsored by Rep. Harvey Otterman and 14 others, this bill would authorize a 50 percent tax credit for contributions to organizations that award means-tested tuition scholarships to students attending private schools. Individual credits would be capped at $10,000 and corporate credits would be capped at $100,000.

H. 235 — Tax Credit for Home Schooling: Sponsored by Rep. Harvey Otterman and 17 others, this bill would authorize a tax credit of up to $500 a year per child for educational expenses related to home schooling.

H. 262 — “The Chittenden Bill”: Sponsored by Rep. Harvey Otterman, this bill would allow a school board to tuition pupils to independent faith-based schools, a practice struck down by the Vermont Supreme Court in 1999.