MONTPELIER — The state will pay for a high school student to take college classes, as long as the student doesn’t attend a religious school.
By a 76-65 vote Tuesday, the Vermont House defeated an amendment that would have opened the state’s Dual Enrollment program to students who attend religious schools.
The amendment to a bill addressing an array of miscellaneous education issues was offered by Republican Rep. Carolyn Whitney Branagan of Georgia, who had the support of many of her House colleagues during an hour-long debate on the subject Monday afternoon.
“I rise to support this. This is a matter of fairness,” said Republican Rep. Robert Bouchard of Colchester, who noted that parents of children who attend a religious school already pay for education twice; once when they pay property taxes and again when they pay tuition.
In 2013, the General Assembly enacted the Dual Enrollment program, which allows high school students in their junior or senior years to take up to two college courses. During the current and coming fiscal years, the program is paid for by the state’s General Fund at a cost of $800,000, as well as an additional $300,000 from the education fund.
Beginning fiscal year 2015-16, the cost — each college voucher is $669 — will be shared equally by the state and by the local school district.
The program is open to students who are enrolled in a public school, are home schooled, or attend one of the 92 approved independent schools in the state.
“Approved” is a specific designation made by the state, which approves schools based on a host of criteria, including finances, teacher qualifications and quality of facilities.
Branagan’s amendment sought to replace an amendment offered by Independent Rep. Adam Greshin, of Warren, who wanted to open the Dual Enrollment program to independent schools, whether they are approved or not.
Greshin discussed a constituent who pulled his child from public school because the child was being bullied. The child now attends an independent school, but not one with the “approved” designation.
“This is not the type of child that I would like to disqualify from the Dual Enrollment program,” Greshin said. “Home school good. Independent school bad. That’s what we’re saying, and I don’t think that’s something we should say.”
Greshin’s amendment was also defeated, by a vote of 74 to 67.
The topic of dual enrollment funding for students attending religious schools came before the Senate Education Committee earlier in the day. Donna Russo-Savage, legislative council for the House and Senate education committees, discussed case law as it relates to state funding for students in religious schools.
In 1999, the state Supreme Court heard the case of Chittenden v. Vermont, in which the town of Chittenden — which does not operate a high school — sought the right to tuition its students to a Catholic school, Mount St. Joseph Academy in nearby Rutland.
The Supreme Court ruled the town could not tuition its students to MSJ because there were no safeguards to prevent the public dollars from being spent for religious purposes.
Under the Dual Enrollment program, however, none of the state money actually goes to the high school —religious or otherwise — but is paid directly to the college.
“Whatever you decide, it could get litigated either way, and it will be up to the Supreme Court to decide if you did the right thing or not,” Russo-Savage told the Senate Education Committee.
Greg Glennon, general counsel for the Agency of Education, also raised the possibility that any decision carried the potential of a future lawsuit.
“It’s possible to make good-faith legal arguments either way,” Glennon said.
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