Suit: Town should pay for religious school tuition

  • Croyden residents Dennis and Cathy Griffin are suing the N.H. Department of Education, saying that it is unconstitutional to exclude religious schools, like the one their grandson Clayton attends. Institute of Justice

Monitor staff
Published: 9/15/2020 3:38:53 PM

Croydon residents Dennis and Cathy Griffin have been sending their now 12-year-old grandson Clayton to Mount Royal Academy, a Catholic pre-K-12 school in Sunapee, since he was in first grade. Now, they say a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision means the town should be paying his tuition.

In a lawsuit that was filed Sept. 2, the family says religious schools should be included in educational choice programs, furthering the same school choice debate that has centered on the town of Croydon in the past.

“What we want to do with this lawsuit is say it is unconstitutional to exclude religious schools just because they are religious and ask N.H. law to get more in touch with what the law requires,” said Kirby West, an attorney for the Institute of Justice, who is representing the Griffins.

Croydon, which has a population of about 778, operates a K-4 public school called Croydon Village School, but has no middle or high school. It is part of New Hampshire’s tuitioning program in which towns without their own schools pay for their students to attend nearby public or non-religious private schools. However, a state law currently prohibits those towns from paying for religious schools, so the Griffins have been ineligible for tuition payments from the town at the Catholic Mount Royal Academy.

A recent ruling could change that.

In July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue that once a state decides to subsidize private education, it can’t disqualify a private school from that program solely because it is a religious school.

In a press release, Dennis Griffin said he hopes New Hampshire will follow the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’ve chosen what we believe is the best school for our grandson,” said Dennis Griffin. “It’s not fair that we can’t receive the same support that other families in the town receive just because his school is religious.”

A year of junior high tuition at Mount Royal Academy is $7,005.

Croydon was involved in a school choice legal dispute in 2016, when the state tried to block the town from paying tuition to private schools. The dispute resulted in the Legislature passing the “Croydon Bill” that was signed in 2017, allowing towns with no public school to pay for students to attend private school. The bill excluded payment to religious schools.

West said the plaintiffs have filed for preliminary injunction on the case, meaning that if the court decides in their favor, town school boards can begin providing tuition for religious schools immediately when it is decided.

The Griffins are currently waiting on an answer from the Department of Education. If the state files a motion to dismiss the complaint, it will be argued in court, though West says she suspects the case will be settled without going to trial. She hopes the case will be resolved within the next six months.

Department of Education commissioner Frank Edelblut has said in a statement that he cannot comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, but wants to treat schools equally.

“I have asked the Attorney General’s Office to review our programs to ensure they comply with the law, and treat all nonpublic schools equally regardless of religious affiliation,” Edelblut said.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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