Seth B. Bongartz

Seth B. Bongartz

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Vermont has a unique education landscape in that 44 of it’s 114 school districts do not operate a public school for some grade levels. Locally, towns like Sunderland, Dorset, Sandgate, Manchester, Londonderry, Winhall, Peru, Landgrove, Danby, Mt. Tabor, Rupert and Pawlet are non-operating with regard to high school. Instead, we pay tuition to the high school of the family’s choice. Families value the opportunity to select the school best fitted to the needs of the student in question.

This tuitioning system has been in place locally for nearly 200 years. Here, and around the state, it is deeply rooted in Vermont’s tradition of local control and reflects our rural geography and demographics. Most importantly, our tuitioning system is different than what some call a voucher system because it is available and completely accessible to every student, regardless of socio-economic status.

Rural areas of the state are deeply committed to this unique system because it provides opportunity for students, some of whom chose nearby public high schools, while others chose independent schools like Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail. An added benefit of the system is that it attracts families and businesses to the area, giving us a chance to compete with the state’s more urban regions.

Across Vermont, public schools educate about 81,000, while independent schools educate a little more than 4,000. We are part of the 4,000. Locally, our combination of public and independent schools work well together and support the range of opportunities that, across the public and independent sectors, we make available to our students.

Last year, in the case of Carson vs. Makin, the U.S. Supreme Court threw a wrench in the works when it ruled that states that offer transferable tuition – school choice – cannot deny students using state dollars the right to attend religious schools. Meanwhile, the Compelled Support Clause in Vermont’s Constitution, as interpreted by the Vermont Supreme Court, says that a school district may pay public tuition dollars to a religious school only if there are safeguards against state money being used for religious worship or instruction.

There may be a simple fix for the Makin decision. The House Education Committee is working on legislation that requires that schools receiving public dollars would have to demonstrate a commitment to non-discrimination against any of the classes of individuals protected by federal and state law, such as the LBGTQ community. This measured response is supported by the vast majority of Vermont’s independent schools.

I certainly understand the strong local reaction to S. 66 and H. 258. Intentionally or not, those bills would have a destructive impact on our communities. But the real action is in the House Education Committee as it tries to thread the needle between Carson vs. Makin and the Compelled Support Clause of the Vermont Constitution. In the meantime, your local delegation (James, Pajala, Rice, Chesnut-Tangerman, Sears , Campion and Bongartz) are watching closely and interacting on a daily basis to do everything we can to make sure our communities are not negatively impacted.

For my part, as much as I have been deeply involved in efforts to improve the housing crisis and some key environmental issues, the importance of maintaining our education system rises above all else. We appreciate that our communities care so deeply about our students. We will keep in touch.

Rep. Seth Bongartz is a Democrat from Manchester. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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