RUTLAND, Vt.—Yesterday evening, a federal judge approved a settlement that ends a lawsuit challenging the state and several local governments’ policy and practice of denying tuition benefits to parents who send their children to religious schools. The settlement guarantees that Vermont parents who qualify for tuition benefits can spend those benefits on the private school of their choice, regardless of whether the school is religious. The families who brought the lawsuit were represented by the national nonprofit law firm, the Institute for Justice (IJ).
“This settlement guarantees that any Vermont family eligible for tuition benefits can use those benefits to find the best education that meets their kids’ needs,” said IJ Attorney David Hodges. “Vermonters will no longer have their civil rights violated when they send their children to schools that happen to be religious.”
Vermont’s program allows parents in “tuitioning” towns to receive funds to attend qualifying private schools anywhere in the world. With today’s settlement, families will no longer be forbidden from using those funds to send their children to religiously affiliated schools. Also under the settlement, residents of several school districts will also be eligible for reimbursements if they were denied tuition based on religion. Rutland Town School District and Hartland School District will reimburse residents who were wrongly denied tuition during the 2019-20 school year or later. The Ludlow Mount Holly Unified Union School District will do the same for the 2020-21 school year or later. Residents have until Monday, April 10 to seek reimbursement.
The Valente family in the small town of Mount Holly are one such family that stands to benefit from today’s settlement. Michael and Nancy Valente send their son, Dominic, to Mount St. Joseph Academy, a private Catholic school. The school meets all the state’s qualifications in its statute for the tuition assistance program. But under state policy, the Valentes could not use the tuition assistance program to pay for Dominic’s education at Mount St. Joseph, simply because of the school’s religious affiliation. Now, the Valentes and other families like them can use the tuition benefits the state gives them to help pay for their children’s education.
“Not every Vermonter has access to a local public school,” said Michael Valente. “Now families like mine have the ability to pick the best school for their children, regardless of whether the school is religious or not.”
In the summer of 2020, IJ won the landmark case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue before the United States Supreme Court that established that “[a] State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” Last year, IJ won a companion victory, Carson v. Makin, at the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from its tuitioning program violated the U.S. Constitution’s protections for religious liberty, found in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
“Every family deserves the opportunity to find the best education that meets their student’s unique needs, but until recently that wasn’t a reality for many Vermont families,” said IJ President and Chief Counsel Scott Bullock. “Today’s settlement brings Vermont in line with IJ’s landmark Supreme Court victories and ensures that families, not the government, choose which schools are best for their children, including secular or religious private schools.”