Institute prepares Vermont lawsuit over school vouchers

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(Host) The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes school choice, says it plans to sue the state of Vermont. The group wants to overturn a Vermont Supreme Court decision that prevents state tax dollars from being used to pay tuition at religious schools.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The Institute for Justice was very active in a school choice case involving the town of Chittenden, a Rutland County community that doesn’t have its own high school. The town allows its students to select a school from a group of nearby high schools.

The Institute joined the legal effort to allow families in Chittenden to use their tuition money to send their children to a religious school in the region. The Vermont Supreme Court rejected this expansion of school choice based on a provision of the Vermont Constitution that calls for a separation of church and state.

Last Spring, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a case involving the city of Cleveland, that public tax money could be used to pay tuition at religious schools. Armed with that decision, Institute senior attorney Richard Komer wants to challenge the Vermont Supreme Court decision in federal court:

(Komer) “I think that the Vermont Supreme Court in the Chittenden case gave short shrift to the federal constitutional issues involved, and they just got it wrong. And they instituted or continued a regime of religious discrimination of treating religious institutions and religiously motivated people worse than other people. And that the federal constitution doesn’t permit.”

(Kinzel) Education Commissioner Ray McNulty, who says it’s important for the courts to resolve these issues, strongly opposes efforts to use public tax dollars to finance tuition at religious schools:

(McNulty) “Public education in general, from my perspective, provides a service to the community where I think people need to be brought together and develop a common community spirit. And that as we continue to divide up the opportunity to be educated in separate areas, separate groups, I believe we start to lose the sense of common community experience. When you go to a public school in Vermont it’s a school filled with great diversity.”

(Kinzel) The Institute for Justice says it’s looking for plaintiffs for their case and that they expect to file their lawsuit before the end of the year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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