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Published in Print: April 7, 1999, as Vt. District Backing Off From Choice Proposal

Vt. District Backing Off From Choice Proposal

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A small Vermont school district that made national headlines three years ago by trying to pay the way for some local students to attend a religious school is now bowing out of the school choice debate.

The town of Chittenden is one of 90 communities in Vermont that do not have their own high schools and are not members of so-called union high school districts. Under a practice known in the state as "tuitioning," the 200-student district has long paid tuition to send its students to public high schools in other towns or to secular private high schools after they complete Chittenden's K-8 schools.

In 1996, the school board agreed to pay the tuition for about a dozen families who send their children to a nearby Roman Catholic school.

But the state education department, citing the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion, threatened the district with the loss of all state aid if it followed through with the plan. Chittenden agreed to hold off paying religious school tuition while the state courts heard its legal challenge. The district's case was supported by the Institute for Justice, a Washington legal group that fights for school vouchers.

A state trial court ruled against the town in 1997. The Vermont Supreme Court heard arguments more than a year ago, and a decision is pending. ("Vt. Voucher Claim Rejected," July 17, 1997.)

Meanwhile, a new school board was elected last month with only one of the original three members who supported the tuition proposal.

In an initial vote March 15, the board voted 2-1 to change the district's tuition policy and drop its support for including religious schools. The board is scheduled to take a final vote April 12, when the tally is expected to be the same. The motion to change the policy was made by a new board member, Lisa Purcell.

"The new majority of the board really thinks that paying tuition for sectarian schools is bad public policy," said William J. Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, a group of districts that includes Chittenden. "They wanted to make that perfectly clear."

What is not as clear is what the policy change means for the legal case pending before the state supreme court. The school board voted to tell the Institute for Justice to stop representing it in the legal case and before the news media. The institute was representing the town for free because it hopes to take a school voucher case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the town is not trying to formally withdraw from the legal case.

"The board would like to have these issues resolved in any case," Mr. Mathis said.

Even if the school board wanted to withdraw, the case would likely continue because the courts granted a group of parents who want tuition reimbursement for sending their children to a religious school legal status as intervenors in the case.

So even if the state high court rejects the religious-school-tuition plan, the parents' group could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said William Meub, a Rutland lawyer who represents the parents.

Long Tradition

Vermont districts without their own high schools have practiced "tuitioning" for more than a century. Religious schools were included in the system for many years. But in 1961, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that their inclusion violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

In 1994, however, the state high court authorized a district to reimburse tuition for a Manchester family that sent its son to a religiously affiliated boarding school in Delaware.

The state court favorably cited a series of federal Supreme Court rulings that voucher advocates contend have opened the door for the inclusion of religious schools in aid programs when parents control the decision of choosing the school.

The 1994 ruling prompted the Chittenden district to test the waters by proposing to reimburse parents who sent their children to Mount St. Joseph's Academy, a Catholic high school in Rutland.

The town has about 100 students of high school age, of whom 12 to 15 would attend Mount St. Joseph's under the plan. The town was planning to cover all of the academy's tuition, which ranged from $2,525 to $3,000 annually.

Richard D. Komer, the Institute for Justice lawyer who represented the school district until last month, said his organization would still watch the case closely even though it was no longer formally involved.

"We're not disappointed, because the [parents' group] could still take it up to the U.S. Supreme Court should they lose," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 30, Page 3

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