Vermont Agency of Education reaches settlement with religious schools

Dan French, secretary of the Agency of Education, speaks at a Covid-19 press conference in September 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont’s Agency of Education reached a final settlement in two lawsuits seeking to allow public money to pay for tuition at religious schools. 

A group of families sued the state in 2020, alleging that their children had been discriminated against because they were denied public money to attend religious schools. 

The suits were largely decided in June, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Maine public tuition program could not exclude religious schools. By September, the two sides in Vermont had reached a settlement agreement.

State officials agreed to pay $95,000 for attorneys’ fees and issue a letter to superintendents explaining that religious schools could not be excluded from public tuition payments. 

But Christina Reiss, a federal judge in Burlington, expressed concerns with some aspects of the two sides’ agreement. The proposed settlement would require her to sign off on conclusions of law that she did not agree with, she said. 

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked to kind of adopt somebody’s conclusions of law in that way,” she said in a September telephone conference.

Reiss signed a modified agreement in late October. In a filing on Wednesday, the two sides agreed to dismiss the suit. 

The settlement “allows tuition paying school districts to move forward with clarity, understanding that they must pay tuition to all approved independent schools regardless of religious affiliation,” said Ted Fisher, an Agency of Education spokesperson. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a national Christian advocacy group that represented the parents, declared victory after the Wednesday filings. 

“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,” Paul Schmitt, an attorney with the organization, said in a Thursday press release.  

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