March 24, 2022

William Mathis: Thwarting the common good: public money for religious schools

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William Mathis has served as a Vermont school superintendent and the managing director of the National Education Policy Center. In this commentary for the VT Digger, he writes about the threat vouchers pose to the common good.

Clothed in double-speak, some political leaders, engaging in political theater, claim to advance freedom, equality, opportunity and other verities while their actions testify to the opposite.

Take for example Senate bill S.219, which would authorize taxpayer-funded vouchers to religious schools. Voucher proponents claim the bill will advance anti-discrimination, encourage compliance with state and federal constitutions, and prevent future litigation. They base this view on a narrow Montana Supreme Court decision.

The more likely result would be the abolition of the Vermont school voucher scheme.

An 1869 law is claimed to be the foundation for Vermont vouchers. That rationale requires substantial historical retrofitting. In a small, 19th-century rural state, this meant that towns contracted with each other to provide for “the convenient instruction of youth” (Article 68). This is a long way from authorizing a religious school choice program. In fact, the common benefits clause of the Constitution prohibits supporting religion with taxpayer money (Article 3).

The key to the Senate bill is that it proposes “adequate safeguards” be put in place to prevent religious instruction from being provided by publicly funded religious schools. Reasonable people might lift an eyebrow at this reasoning. Any attempt to set guidelines for what is religious and what is not is a wasted trip to a nonexistent reality. The IRS basically gave up trying.  The court cases are as old as the nation. The debates are as ancient as humankind. In this rhetorical wonderland, they cloud and mystify but do not clarify.

Other unanswered but compelling issues swarm us like black flies.

  • The prohibitive cost of operating two systems — Under present-day interpretations, towns that do not operate schools at all levels or belong to a regional district may provide vouchers to other schools. Using independent school association counts, and blending elementary and secondary tuition rates, that’s about $130 million of tax money scattered to private schools.

Read the full commentary here.

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