In North Country Supervisory Union, officials fear that federal money will subsidize discrimination
A class at Richford Elementary School, a public school in Franklin County, is seen in January. For years, private religious schools in Vermont have been able to benefit from federal dollars. But what if they don’t follow anti-discrimination laws? File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
For years, public federal dollars have paid for staff, materials and programs at private schools across the country.
Through a process known as “equitable services,” public schools that receive federal funds are usually required to set some of that money aside to spend on local private schools.
Now, administrators in one Vermont supervisory union are raising concerns that those funds could be subsidizing discrimination.
In an email to Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French last month, North Country Supervisory Union superintendent Elaine Collins said she had “some serious reservations” about providing those federally funded resources to United Christian Academy, a private religious K-12 school in Newport.
“Not only does this not feel right ethically, but it seems that we are out of compliance with our own (supervisory union) Equity, Transgender Student, and Non-Discrimination policies, as well as breaking state and federal law,” Collins wrote in a Feb. 27 email obtained by VTDigger through a public records request.
Those concerns stem from comments United Christian Academy made earlier this year, in which the school hinted to state officials that it might not comply with Vermont’s prohibitions on discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
Vermont’s anti-discrimination laws are supposed to apply to all schools, not just public ones. If private schools — often called independent schools — want to receive public tuition money, they are required to go one step further, by signing a statement affirming that they will follow those laws.
In its bid to be eligible for tuition money, however, United Christian Academy added an extra statement to its application.
“As a Christian-based school we have a statutory and constitutional right to make decisions based on our religious beliefs, including those pertaining to marriage and sexuality,” the school wrote to the State Board of Education in January.
As of 2022, United Christian’s handbook “reserves the right to admit students and families on the basis of academic performance, religious commitment, lifestyle choices, and personal qualifications,” according to a state report on the school.
At North Country, which serves roughly 2,600 students in Orleans and Essex counties, administrators worried that, by spending federal dollars on the school, they could inadvertently support discrimination.
“It’s a double standard, and it places us in a hard spot,” Collins said in an interview.
In Vermont, the prospect of public dollars in private religious schools has long been a source of consternation. The controversy typically centers on state tuition money, which has been the subject of much scrutiny and discussion at the Statehouse.
But the equitable services process is a separate program, with separate federal money.
When public schools receive money through federal programs — such as Title I, a school anti-poverty program, and Title IV, which is intended to enhance students’ academic performance — administrators are usually required to set some aside for local private schools through a process called equitable services.
Private schools do not receive cash directly. Instead, public school administrators consult with local independent school administrators, then use the funds to hire staff and pay for materials for them.
Vermont has 107 private schools that are eligible for equitable services, according to a list published by the Vermont Agency of Education. Many are religiously affiliated, and some have not been approved to receive state tuition money.
It’s not clear, however, how many of those schools are actually receiving services.
Since 2020, United Christian has received nearly $145,000 worth of services through three federal programs, according to Jessica Applegate, North Country Supervisory Union’s director of learning design. That money has helped pay for part-time reading and math interventionists, as well as a music program, at the religious school.
“We advertise the positions, we do the interviewing, we do all the contracts for their contracted services if they hire (people) for professional development, we order all their materials and supplies (and) books,” Applegate said.
Because that money is technically not in their possession, private schools that benefit from it are not subject to the federal anti-discrimination laws that apply to public schools, according to federal documents explaining the program. Instead, the public schools are tasked with following anti-discrimination laws.
But administrators at North Country have remained concerned. By working with United Christian Academy to buy materials and hire staff for them, they worried, could they be supporting discrimination with public money?
In her email to the state last month, Collins noted that North Country employs LGBTQ+ staffers.
“Assuredly, it’s not a matter of the money involved, but more importantly that our (supervisory union) … would continue to be required to support, through ample time and effort, a school that does not follow anti-discrimination laws and practices,” she said.
Kimberlee Strepka, United Christian Academy’s head of school, declined an interview request from VTDigger.
In an emailed statement, Strepka thanked North Country, saying it had been “very supportive of United Christian Academy for many years.”
“Possible changes to future services are currently in discussion, so we … would prefer to not comment on specifics,” she wrote. “We hope that we are able to continue this amicable relationship into the future, as helping students flourish is a goal we both share.”
Applegate shared an email exchange between her and state education officials, in which she asked whether the supervisory union should continue to spend public money on United Christian.
“The short and maybe not so helpful response is, yes, the (public school district) does need to continue to support services through (equitable services) of federal funds to the kiddoes attending any recognized and approved independent school,” Deborah Bloom, an Agency of Education employee, wrote to Applegate in a Feb. 21 email.
But in conversations, Applegate said, state officials also suggested that North Country no longer use the federal dollars to pay for staff at United Christian — and use it instead for materials or programs.
Asked about their guidance on the matter, state education officials declined to provide specific advice on how public schools should handle that money.
“The U.S. Department of Education has been clear in its guidance that equitable services must be provided to all eligible students attending private schools that are non-profits,” Lindsey Hedges, an Agency of Education spokesperson, said in an email.