Tuition changes a threat to some Vermont schools

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-18-2023 10:04 PM

The meetings of the Strafford School Board tend to be full of practical questions that need resolution. There isn’t much time for philosophical discussion of education, board Chairwoman Sarah Root said in a recent interview.

But a subject that has been discussed only sporadically is now on the table across the state: Should Vermont send public funding to private schools?

“It sounds to me like it’s becoming an issue for us very soon,” Root said.

Bills filed in both the state House and Senate this month would require Vermont towns that pay tuition for some or all grades to designate up to three public schools for their students to attend. The bills, SB 66 and HB 258, are a response to a decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court that said a state that pays tuition to private schools must pay tuition to religious schools.

Citing a previous opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “A state need not subsidize private education, but once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The Vermont legislation is intended to bring the state’s tuition payments in line with the compelled support clause of the Vermont Constitution, which holds that residents can’t be required to support religions they don’t believe in. But if enacted as drafted, the legislation also would end the practice of allowing tuitioning districts to send students to virtually any private school, virtually anywhere.

This would have a significant effect on the Upper Valley’s education landscape. While only around 4% of Vermont’s publicly funded students attended an independent school in the state in the 2018-19 school year, according to a 2021 report by the state Auditor’s Office, school districts in seven of the 24 towns on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley pay tuition to send students to secondary schools. And for The Sharon Academy, an independent 7-12 school in Sharon, losing public funding would likely mean closing the school, Head of School Mary Newman said.

“If this bill is not amended, it does not leave room for independent schools like The Sharon Academy to receive public funds,” Newman said. About 80% of the school’s students are publicly funded.

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The proposed legislation also is rousing a deep-seated belief among Vermonters that public money should remain in the public school system. Fully 95% of Vermont’s publicly funded students attend public schools.

“Personally, I don’t believe in public money going to private schools,” said Root, who emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not the Strafford School Board. The effect of the proposed legislation “would be quite significant” in Strafford, she added.

“I think it’s a good bill,” Neil Odell, a longtime member of the Norwich and Dresden school boards, said in an interview. “It sets out to define what a school needs to do to be eligible for taxpayer funding. It’s got a set of safeguards for both students and taxpayers.” And it would align Vermont’s school funding with both the state and U.S. constitutions, added Odell, who also is president of the Vermont School Boards Association.

The aim, Odell said, is to make school funding in Vermont more accountable and transparent.

Tuition’s roots

Vermont has allowed school districts that don’t operate their own schools to pay tuition so their students can get an education since the 1860s. But a practice that once was about providing access to a limited resource gradually became a form of school choice. In 1991, the Legislature made it easier to open a private school in Vermont, and in the 1990s, many new schools opened. At the time, Vermont’s school enrollments were at an all-time high and have been falling since. There are 50 independent schools in Vermont for general education and another 29 for special education.

For districts without schools of their own, Vermont pays the full tuition rate at public schools, mainly in Vermont and neighboring states, and will send the state average tuition to private schools. There are 45 districts in the state that pay tuition for some or all grades. Some are rural and isolated, such as the Granville-Hancock Unified School District, which unites two towns in the White River Valley that had to close their elementary schools because they had so few students. Others, such as Hartland, are larger and surrounded by towns that have high schools.

Because the state doesn’t keep tabs on where tuition money goes, it’s been spread far and wide.

In a court filing, the state Agency of Education acknowledged sending public tuition money to schools in Nevada City, Calif., Mercersburg, Pa., Faribault, Minn., and in one notable example, to a Catholic school in Spain. Prominent New England boarding schools, such as Kent School in Kent, Conn., St. Paul’s School in Concord and Milton Academy in Massachusetts, among many others, have been regular recipients of Vermont tuition money over the past decade, according to documents from school districts and in court filings.

Spread over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, the nine-town Taconic and Green Regional School District, in southwestern Vermont, paid tuition to 24 out-of-state private schools and sent one student to Hanover High School, at a cost in 2018-19 of more than $275,000, according to district records obtained by the Valley News.

When several families sued the state and tuitioning districts, including Hartland, in federal court in 2020 to force them to pay tuition to religious schools, part of the state’s defense was that because it provided no oversight, districts were already paying tuition to religious schools.

“In reporting their tuition payments to sectarian and non-sectarian independent schools … sending school districts are not required to, and do not, report to AOE their reasons or justification for these payments,” Brad James, the AOE’s finance manager since 2000, testified in October 2020.

In the 10-town White River Valley Supervisory Union, of which Strafford is a member, all but two towns, Bethel and Royalton, which form the White River Valley Unified District, pay tuition for some or all grades. This year, the tuitioning districts in WRVSU are sending students to 44 different schools. The vast majority are public and range from nearby schools in Randolph and Middlebury to far-flung ones, such as Richford (Vt.) Jr. Sr. High School and Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, in Massachusetts. Students take tuition payments to private schools in Vermont but also to Blue Hill Harbor School, in Maine, and Worcester (Mass.) Academy.

Hartland has traditionally sent the majority of its high school students to Hartford, with smaller, but significant numbers attending the public high schools in Windsor, Hanover and Woodstock. In the current year, Hartland budgeted $35,000 to send two students to Kimball Union Academy and $16,500 to send two students to Saint Michael School, a Catholic school in Brattleboro, Vt.

Earlier this month, the Hartland School Board ratified the settlement of Vitale v. Vermont, the lawsuit seeking to force Vermont to pay tuition to religious schools. That suit was rendered moot by the Supreme Court’s Carson v. Makin decision last year, which required Maine’s similar tuitioning program to include religious schools.

“I would like to suggest that we as a board make it clear that we’re approving this, so we don’t get sued again and waste taxpayers’ money, but that we categorically disagree with … the Supreme Court decision,” Hartland School Board member Sarah Taylor said, according to a video of the board’s Feb. 7 meeting.

Nicole Buck, chairwoman of the Hartland School Board, declined an interview request but sent a brief emailed statement: “We have not recently discussed designating schools. I think Hartland’s historical patterns of school choice would make it extremely difficult to designate 3 schools.”

In most years, 5 to 10% of Hartland high school students attend a private school, records show. Last year, the district sent 120 of its 140 high school students to public high schools in Hartford, Windsor, Woodstock and Hanover.

By allowing tuitioning districts to designate up to three schools, something they’re already allowed to do, the bill “doesn’t get rid of the existing system,” Odell said. “It just changes it.”

Odell has made a pair of videos about the tuitioning system, covering the history and the financing of this unusual arrangement.

Traditional academies

The proposed legislation wouldn’t affect the state’s four historic academies, independent schools that operate as public schools: Thetford Academy, Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vt., Lyndon Institute and St. Johnsbury Academy. Therapeutic private schools that serve special education students also would be able to continue to accept public tuition.

Carrie Brennan, head of school at Thetford Academy, has two teenage sons whose educations would not be affected by the proposed legislation. One is at a therapeutic school, one at Thetford Academy. But the proposal troubles her nonetheless.

“I just imagine all of the Vermont educators and parents who look at this bill and see this as the end of things as we know it,” she said in an interview.

“I’d really like to believe that there is a way to specifically keep the separation between church and state, but the Carson v. Makin case is incredibly complicated,” she added. She’d like to see the Legislature spend more time on the issue and find “a more targeted solution.”

Newman, Sharon Academy’s leader, has brought the school closer to public school status than it has been before, and the idea that it would be shut out of public funding is “confusing,” she said.

She sent out a message to the school community urging them to reach out to lawmakers. She said she would rather see all students in Vermont have choice than see it restricted.

Another lawsuit currently before the Vermont Supreme Court is demanding the same thing. Filed by the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago-based conservative nonprofit legal center, the suit calls on the state to extend the tuitioning program statewide. An Orleans County Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, leading to an appeal to the state’s high court.

Among the defense arguments in that case, in which First Branch Unified District, which comprises Chelsea and Tunbridge, is a defendant, is that school districts can’t change state education policy; only the Legislature can do that.

If the bills do become law, it could be a boon to public schools, which have struggled as statewide enrollment has declined. Fewer students leads to higher per pupil costs, and as a result, higher property tax rates. Vermont has consolidated its public schools, which has led some districts to close schools and adopt tuitioning.

Even in towns that pay tuition for some grades, school officials understand that there are tradeoffs. In Tunbridge, which pays tuition for high school, residents believe it draws in new families, Kathy Galluzzo, a longtime school board member, said in an interview.

But if the town were in a high school district, its students would stay together and there might be a greater sense of community, she said, adding that it also would be easier to control costs.

“There’s a benefit to keeping all your kids in the same supervisory union,” she said.

But she’s unsure about the proposed legislation. “I guess I want to hear more about how that would all look,” she said.

White River Valley Supervisory Union once had four high schools, in Bethel, Chelsea, Rochester and South Royalton. After Act 46, it’s down to one, White River Valley High School, a union between Bethel and Royalton. There’s room there for more students, Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of WRVSU, said. For now, though, he’s waiting to see what the Legislature does.

“I think it’s really early,” Kinnarney said. “I think this bill will go through a significant drafting period. … I’ll be following it very closely.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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