John McClaughry: Key moment to expand parental choice in education


This commentary is from John McClaughry, Vice President of the Ethan Allen Institute. He served as Deputy Chairman of the Senate Education Committee in 1991-92.

This year and the next biennium will likely be landmark years for the future of parental choice in education in Vermont.

In June 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana that if a state offers education tax credits, it should offer them to students choosing sectarian schools as well as public schools. The court said the exclusion from sectarian schools weighed on the plaintiffs’ right to free exercise of their religion.

The move sparked at least three similar cases by Vermont plaintiffs seeking to use state taxpayer dollars to benefit their children in independent, bigoted schools.

The Valente case argues that parents in towns with tuition (Mount Holly) should be able to ask their school districts to pay their children’s tuition directly to a religious school (Mount St. Joseph Academy). Last month, the parents filed another lawsuit (Williams) demanding that the United Union District of Barstow pay tuition for two children attending the same Roman Catholic school.

Another case from Glover argues that if a student is allowed to bring school district tuition funding to a sectarian school, then all students, not just city tuition students, should also benefit. of this “common advantage”. Meanwhile, a very similar case (Carson v. Makin) made its way from Maine all the way to the US Supreme Court, which held oral argument in December.

But the government schools lobby is urging the Legislative Assembly to halt what could be a costly hemorrhage of students – and money – out of government schools. The four advocates for public education are the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont Principals’ Association, and the Vermont Teachers’ Union-NEA.

Their February 23 joint letter to the Senate Education Committee lays out their argument that expanding parental choice brings “a jumble of complicated legal and logistical issues.”

Their central message comes through loud and clear: Forget child funding. “Funding only public schools.”

The lobby groups anchor their cause by saying that the state must provide all students with an “equitable and quality education in order to maintain the prosperity of democracy”. They believe that only public schools can provide equitable and quality education. While parental choice is (unfortunately) forced by the courts, non-public schools must contend with public school regulations controlling “curriculum, staff qualifications, public meetings and public document requirements, Financial Accountability and Student Assessment”.

One wonders how many parents in Vermont believe their public schools are providing their children with a quality product, especially when their unionized teachers have, through their national union resolution last year, pledged to teach “only one people are defined primarily by race, gender and sexual orientation, and that American institutions are designed to ensure white supremacy and “patriarchy”.

What should be obvious to any parent is that when parents with effective choice find a school chosen to inadequately provide what they – the parents, not the pressure groups – believe to be a quality education, they can choose to send their children to another school, public, independent or religious, that does a better job.

Senate Education Chairman Brian Campion, D-Bennington, wholeheartedly agrees with this maxim “government experts know best, parents know little or nothing.” He was quoted in True North Reports as saying “we (the government) need to put safeguards on (religious school practices) to protect students and staff”.

Protect students and staff? Really? Someone needs to explain to President Campion and the members of his committee that when parents have effective choice, their children do not need to be protected by authoritarian government bureaucrats who strive to preserve the virtual monopoly of their public school. They can choose another school.

When public schools start losing students, they have to improve the quality of their offerings and get rid of some ideological baggage to win them back. But public school management wants the government to eliminate competition.

Wealthy parents can always send their children to St. George’s School (Howard Dean) or Buxton School (Peter Shumlin). But the public school lobby simply cannot tolerate the state funding everyone else’s children to attend the Rice Memorial.

I strongly support Vermont’s constitutional provision against forced taxpayer support of worship, including pervasive sectarian education. Making sectarian schools dependent on public funding sets up a dangerous political dynamic that our founding fathers knew would be seriously divisive.

But the “no forced support” clause in our Constitution is for individuals, not governments. He is satisfied when the state offers a prorated refund to taxpayers who object to tuition subsidies at faith-based schools.

Tuition grants allowing parents to choose what is best for their children will force complacent public schools to compete, instead of letting go unmolested by disgruntled customers who can’t afford anywhere to go. turn.

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