For more than two decades, families who chose to send their children to religious schools were shut out of a state program available to other families with children in public or secular private schools. Vermont officials have announced that is changing.
In light of two recent lawsuits, Vermont has agreed to apply the state’s tuition benefit program to both public and faith-based private schools.
Vermont’s Town Tuition Program provides tuition benefits for students who live in towns without public schools. The towns pay tuition to other schools on behalf of their students instead of maintaining a public high school. Parents could use this benefit to pay for their children to enroll at any public school or approved secular private school they chose. But parents were prohibited from using the funds to pay enrollment costs for their children to attend religious schools.
This policy was the basis of two lawsuits filed on behalf of several families and the Diocese of Burlington against Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French and several school districts.
In court filings late Wednesday, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys favorably settled the two lawsuits—A.H. v. French and E.W. v. French—after the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont entered a stipulated judgment enforcing the settlement agreement.
“All parents should be able to send their kids to schools that are the best fit for them, and the First Amendment protects parents’ right to choose religious schools,” said ADF Legal Counsel Paul Schmitt. “For more than two decades, Vermont unlawfully excluded religious schools and their students from public benefits, essentially eliminating school choice for many parents in the state. As the U.S. Supreme Court recently concluded in Carson v. Makin, the government cannot eliminate families’ benefits just because they choose to use those benefits at religious schools that provide religious instruction.”
The high court ruled 6-3 in Carson v. Makin that the state of Maine could not prohibit parents from using a state tuition program to send their children to private religious schools.
As part of the Vermont settlements, state and local government officials agreed that based on the Carson decision, Vermont’s requirement is unconstitutional and unenforceable. Vermont’s Agency of Education issued a letter to local school districts on Sept. 13, informing them that the First Amendment requires districts to treat tuition requests for religious schools the same as secular school tuition requests. The letter also informed school districts that they cannot penalize religious schools for giving scholarships to students who aren’t eligible for the tuition program. As a result of the stipulated judgment, the education secretary and school districts are prohibited from enforcing Vermont’s discriminatory law. The school districts are also required to process families’ tuition requests fairly.
The settlement also means that the plaintiff families who requested tuition but were wrongly denied by their school districts will be reimbursed for the tuition they paid out-of-pocket. The school districts will reimburse the plaintiff families directly; other families will have the opportunity to request reimbursement from the school districts. The state of Vermont and the school districts will also pay the families’ attorneys’ fees. In light of the settlement, ADF attorneys filed a stipulation of dismissal Wednesday in E.W. v. French and A.H. v. French.
“We are thankful the local school districts decided to do the right thing and give families the benefits they were entitled to,” Schmitt continued. “Many of these families made great sacrifices to provide their kids with a faith-based education and we hope even delayed benefits can provide some financial help.”
Photograph: Kenny Eliason