Commentary: The truth about funding Vermont’s private schools

By GEO HONIGFORD

To the Valley News

Published: 03-22-2023 10:05 AM

Vermont is facing a challenge on two founding principles: separation of church and state and the obligation to provide a public education. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision Carson v. Makin, which requires states that use public money to pay for private schools to also use funds to support religious schools, Vermont has been forced to look at its funding model.

Given the historic role that four private schools have played in educating our students around the state, it is difficult to envision a system that eliminates those historic academies. Adversely, do we want to set up a system in which we fund all private schools that can then exclude students because of sexual orientation, religious beliefs, hair color, who their parents are, or whatever reason they want?

It is widely accepted in the Legislature that Vermont doesn’t want its tax dollars supporting religious schools. The Carson v. Makin decision severely constrains our ability to write legislation that prohibits public funding of religious school while supporting public funding of secular private schools. Private schools have made that option even more challenging by oversimplifying the situation and refusing to work with the Legislature on a solution. In order to find meaningful solutions to this issue, ones that are more likely to sustain a legal challenge, we need to be aware of some of the real impacts of private schools on our educational system and the very narrow path the Supreme Court has presented us.

To be clear, our existing public tuition model is not a well-thought-out funding system. Rather, it is the result of over a 100 years of reacting to change. Because of the haphazard nature of how private schools developed in Vermont, they are operated and funded differently from each other, so it is difficult to place every statement on every school. However, we can make some generalized statements about private schools.

Private schools do not accept all students that apply. Public schools have an enrollment process, most private schools have an application process and do not have to accept everyone that applies. It is no surprise that public schools end up with disproportionate number of students with disabilities. Private schools often remove students, commonly because they are a challenge to educate, and those students have to enter a public school.

Private schools’ academic record is not built around inclusiveness. It is no surprise that when the private schools tout their students’ academic achievements, they compare themselves to public schools that don’t have the ability to hand-select their students. Given all the talk of equity and inclusion in Vermont, how can we permit the use of public money to selectively educate just the students that a private school would like to work with.

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It is an illusion that private schools are less costly. Often private schools will point to their lower per-pupil cost as a reason that they should continue to be funded. Many can lower costs by employing uncertified teachers, leveraging large endowments for facilities improvements, teaching to one group of students (like the college-bound ones) and limiting curricular options. They also have the ability to charge fees, not meet all state educational and reporting requirements, and fundraise privately. All of which are either illegal for public schools or very difficult (try getting a large donor to open up their check book for a public school).

Private schools cost the state more money. Every student that chooses a private school is a loss of revenue to a public school. This necessitates cutting programs and or increasing the per-pupil cost of educating the existing students. Because we have a state funding formula, when the cost goes up at schools around the state, this increases everyone’s educational taxes. A few towns around the state might financially benefit by lower-cost private schools but in reality, private schools don’t save the state money, they increase the cost.

We need a funding system that derives its mission statement from the Vermont Constitution. One that provides for equity in education by ensuring private schools accept all students, comply with all state mandates concerning educational standards and reporting, and sets controls over use of public monies. If a private school decides it can’t meet the standards above, it is welcome to continue operating, just without public funding.

Geo Honigford lives in South Royalton.

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