In Vitale v Vermont, the Liberty Justice Center represents a group of Vermont parents who are challenging the inequities in access to Vermont’s Town Tuitioning system. The program affords some students full access to educational choice, others limited access and still others no access.
The article that follows was written by Bob Audette and appeared on Bennington Banner on January 5, 2021:
WESTMINSTER — A group of Vermont parents is suing the state and three school districts, including Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, over “unequal access to education.”
According to the Liberty Justice Center, which is representing four families, including Brianna Schaefer, of Grafton, and Sara and Louis Vitale, of Athens, the state’s educational tuition system “violates the state constitution by allowing children residing in certain school districts to attend the school of their choice and denying the same right to others.”
The Liberty Justice Center, according to its website, has a team of lawyers who “fight to protect students, families, entrepreneurs and other Americans whose fundamental constitutional rights have been violated.”
According to SourceWatch, the LJC is a nonprofit conservative “public-interest litigation center that fights to protect economic liberty, private property rights, free speech, and other fundamental rights in Illinois and beyond.” SourceWatch notes that LJC has ties to conservative and libertarian organizations such as the Charles Koch Institute and the Bradley Foundation. LJC is also an associate member of the State Policy Network, a group of special interests that call themselves “think tanks” which drive a conservative agenda in statehouses nationwide, states SourceWatch.
The suit, which was filed on Dec. 21 by LJC and Deborah Bucknam, of Bucknam Law in Walden, also includes a family in Chelsea and a family in Glover. It was filed in Vermont Superior Court in Orleans County. The defendants include the state, the commissioner of the Vermont Agency of Education, the State Board of Education, Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District, Bellows Falls Union High School, Lake Region Union Elementary School District and First Branch Unified School District.
“At issue are inequities in access to Vermont’s Town Tuitioning system,” states a news release from LJC. “The nation’s oldest publicly funded school choice system, dating back to the early 1800s, affords some students full access to educational choice, others limited access and still others no access.”
According to Brian Kelsey, senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, only 17 percent of Vermont school children are afforded some form of choice under the present system.
“Those who are ineligible are at a distinct, and unconstitutional, disadvantage,” Kelsey stated in the news release.
For the Vitales, notes the news release, the state’s tuitioning system has failed their 15-year-old disabled son.
“During his seventh- and eighth-grade years,” states the news release, “Town Tuitioning enabled him to attend an independent school, where he thrived. His parents, Sarah and Louis Vitale, now face financial hardship and are struggling to afford the school’s tuition after his eighth-grade year, because their local school district denies Town Tuitioning for ninth through twelfth grades.”
“Our son has so many challenges to overcome,” Sara Vitale stated in the news release. “Getting access to a school willing and able to meet his needs should not be one of them. His school has treated him as a welcomed member of the school community rather than as an imposition, and that had made all the difference in his confidence and success.”
In the suit, the parents contend the current tuitioning system violates the state constitution. They ask that tuitioning be granted to all students in Vermont.
According to the suit, the Vitales’ son attended Grafton Elementary School through grade six. But, the suit states, “Grafton Elementary treated [him] as if he were a nuisance and not a child. If there was a problem, the school would simply isolate L.V. rather than working with L.V. and his family to solve the problem.”
In seventh and eighth grade, their son attended Compass School, in Westminster, a tuitioning school for Bellows Falls Middle School, where he has been “happy and comfortable.”
“But now, he is in 9th grade,” states the suit, and the district does not allow its 9th through 12th grade students to tuition out. “Introducing [him] to the loving environment and educational resources available at Compass School for free for two years and then ripping that benefit away was cruel and inhumane.”
The suit states the Vitales and their three children live on a limited income and receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food benefits “and are scrimping and saving to pay tuition to keep [their son] at Compass. Forcing them to pay for the same benefit that others receive for free is inherently unequal.”
The Vitales are also struggling to pay tuition for the older son, who is in 11th grade at Compass, notes the suit.
“The Vitales’ youngest child … is enrolled in public school at Grafton Elementary, but she, too, is struggling. Currently, the school is failing to provide her with the mental health disability evaluation that she needs. She, too, would gain from the benefit of Town Tuitioning offered to other children in the district and state.”
Schaefer has a 12th grader who has been attending Compass School since seventh grade, states the suit, which contends the student had a difficult time in Grafton Elementary School and was failing to thrive.
“When [her son] began attending Compass in 7th grade, his academic career dramatically improved,” states the suit, but she has had to pay tuition since 9th grade, which she does “despite the tremendous financial hardship it places on her family.”
Schaefer’s younger daughter is currently attending the Grammer School in Putney.
“As a single mother, Ms. Schaefer must work full-time to support her family,” states the suit. “Her family lives paycheck to paycheck. She manages to pay tuition only by taking out a loan every year and then paying it back when she receives her earned income tax credit. In the past, Ms. Schaefer put her EITC funds in savings for times when her weekly paycheck ran out and she needed money for gas and groceries. Now, when there is not enough money, she skips meals, herself, in order to stretch her food budget. With Town Tuitioning available in Vermont, she should not have to live like this to provide her children with the quality education they deserve.”
Because the right to a publicly funded education is a fundamental right, states the suit, Vermont must provide “equal educational opportunities to all children, including the right to Town Tuitioning. … Providing the benefit of Town Tuitioning to students based on the mere fortuity of their residence and denying it to other students like Plaintiffs is patently unfair and violates the Education Clause [in the state constitution].”
David Clark, the chairman of the board of Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, told the Reformer that Bellows Falls Union High School participates in a program that allows students to attend high school at Brattleboro Union High School, Leland and Gray Union High School in Townshend, and Green Mountain Union High School in Chester.
Jack Bryar, chairman of the Windham Northeast Union Elementary School Board, also told the Reformer it has been a long-standing policy to permit parents to choose for their high school students any public school district in the state “that would take them.”
“Choice has been an option for years and in some of our towns nearly half the students make use of that option,” Bryar wrote in an email to the Reformer.
He also noted that he has not heard any complaints from the named parties regarding problems during their time at Grafton Elementary school.
“It is rare for a parent or family to have difficulties with special education services and not bring it to the attention of their local supervisory union representative,” wrote Bryar. “It seems to me that the so-called Liberty Justice Center has spent a lot of money on press releases when they would have been better served by paying for competent lawyers who had even the most basic grasp of education law in the state of Vermont.”
Ted Fisher, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Education, said at this time, the agency has no comment on the litigation. Chris Pratt, WNESU’s superintendent of schools, also had no comment at this time.
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