Vitale v. Vermont

The House and Senate Education Committees met jointly on Tuesday for a presentation from Legislative Counsel on the Vitale v. Vermont Supreme court case. Chairman Campion introduced the topic by noting that the decision came out in March and because the Senate Education Committee is likely to take up the independent schools’ bill soon, he thought it was prudent to get a briefing on this case.

Legislative Counsel shared that three families with school age children filed the lawsuit against the State of Vermont, the Secretary of Education, the State Board of Education, and the school districts in which they resided, claiming they preferred that their children attend a school other than the public school available in their district of residence.

Some of the children had experienced bullying and harassment, some claimed to have experienced disparate treatment by school officials, and some families wanted to send their children to schools that best fit the needs of their particular child at the state's expense (like residents in tuitioning towns do). The Supreme Court didn't get to test any of those arguments out because of the procedural posture of the case. The lower court dismissed the plaintiffs' complaints for failure to bring a “claim upon which relief could be granted.” The families appealed to the Supreme Court, but they ended up agreeing with the lower court and dismissed the case without hearing merits.

At issue here was that the families hadn't exhausted the process in state law to remedy those conditions (bullying, harassment, etc.). The courts looked at the bullying and harassment issues, the disparate treatment issues, the services issues, and compared them to the education clause and common benefits laws of the Vermont Constitution to determine if there was an equal educational opportunity claim. However, the families hadn’t made a claim that the quality of education was substantially different in their local public school versus have the choice to go to school where they desired. Because of this, their claim did not meet the test of the education clause in the Vermont Constitution.

Campion interjected, asking if the parents had instead said that St. Johnsbury Academy provided better opportunity than they have in their non-choice town, that would have made their case stronger. Legislative Counsel agreed that it might have made their case stronger. As it was the Supreme Court said the plaintiffs didn't allege enough facts to survive a motion to dismiss. Essentially the availability of choice alone did not constitute the substantial inequality of educational opportunity. Legislative Counsel noted that The Supreme Court has not weighed in on what “substantially equal educational opportunities” means, so that's the fundamental question at play here.

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