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High court again refuses to consider school choice

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court again has refused to accept an appeal of a decision on education choice, this time on a program in Vermont.

When the high court announced Dec. 13 it would not review a decision by the Vermont Supreme Court rejecting school-district tuition payments to religious schools, it marked the fourth time in 13 months the justices have turned down an opportunity to decide an education-choice case.

In the most recent instance, the Supreme Court let stand a June opinion by Vermont’s high court that tuition payments from the Chittenden Town School District to a Roman Catholic high school were unconstitutional. Under a 130-year law, Vermont school districts are required to provide a high-school education but are not required to operate a high school. One of the options a school district has is to pay tuition to public or private high schools chosen by students and their parents. The state board of education must approve private schools.

The Chittenden district approved tuition payments for some students to Mount St. Joseph, a Catholic school in nearby Rutland. The state board of education cut off general aid to the school district in response, and the district sued the board.

The state supreme court upheld a lower-court decision against the school district. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled the district’s payment to a religious school violated the state constitution’s compelled support clause, which prohibits a person from being “compelled to … support any place of worship.” The court also decided the exclusion of religious schools did not violate the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion. It did not, however, use the clause banning government establishment of religion as a basis for its opinion. The parents, not the school district, appealed the ruling to the country’s highest court.

The Vermont program is similar to one in Maine. In October, the Supreme Court refused to review lower-court opinions that held it is constitutional to exclude religious schools from a Maine tuition program that includes other private schools. Unlike Vermont, Maine has had a legislative prohibition on the inclusion of religious schools in the program since 1981.

While the high court’s actions in those appeals would appear to reflect negatively on the potential for a favorable ruling toward education choice, the justices also have allowed decisions to stand supporting school choice.

Also in October, the Supreme Court announced it would not review an Arizona Supreme Court opinion upholding that state’s program permitting a tax credit of up to $500 for a donation to a school tuition organization, which grants scholarships to students attending private schools, including religious ones.

In November of last year, the high court declined a challenge to Wisconsin’s school-choice program. That state’s supreme court had upheld a plan that permitted children from low-income Milwaukee families to use vouchers at secular or religious private schools.

The Supreme Court may be waiting for a voucher program such as that in Ohio or Florida to work its way through the judicial system before deciding the constitutionality of education choice. In November, the high court blocked a federal judge’s injunction, thereby allowing 600 low-income students newly accepted in a Cleveland, Ohio, program to use their vouchers at religious schools.