MONTPELIER — A bill in the Vermont House Education Committee aims to regulate what flags fly on school grounds.
Introduced by Rep. Brian Smith, R-Orleans-1, as a short-form bill, H.847 “proposes to prohibit flags other than the U.S. flag and State of Vermont flag from being flown on public school property in Vermont.”
If passed, Smith said the bill would prohibit any K-12 public school that receives money from the Vermont Education Fund from flying flags, including Black Lives Matter flags, Pride flags and POW/MIA flags, on school grounds.
Under the bill, schools around the state that have already raised such flags would have to remove them.
According to Smith, debate over flags has, in recent years, stirred controversy and taken up too much time for school boards — time that Smith believes would be better spent on financial matters.
For Smith, the bill isn’t about race or sexual identity — “I don’t care what flag you want to fly at home,” he said — it’s about looking out for taxpayers on both sides of the political aisle.
He said school boards should “concentrate 100% on the money that’s being spent on student education instead of what flag gets flown on the school lawn.”
But while Smith wants to limit which flags fly outside schools, he doesn’t think the state should meddle with what happens inside schools. He said if a teacher or administrator who wanted to display a different flag in a classroom, that would be up to them.
Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP, said Smith’s bill was “splitting hairs” by prohibiting flags to fly outside but not objecting to them inside. She suggested the bill was about “optics.”
“School is supposed to be a place to have difficult conversations,” Moore said. She explained that a Black Lives Matter flag flying outside a school is a visible symbol that such conversation is happening there.
Moore noted that school boards spend time on issues not directly tied to the budget. She also questioned what data Smith had compiled in order to quantify how much time boards around the state had spent discussing flags in relation to other matters.
Rutland City School Board member Alison Notte said, rather than a prohibition, she would like to see school districts develop better flag policies with clear guidelines for vetting flags — ideally ones that, once in place, would leave school boards out of the process barring extenuating circumstances.
Last February, Rutland High School raised a Black Lives Matter flag on school grounds. The board is now discussing the installation of a new permanent flagpole to accommodate other guest flags. Notte said throughout the process, the board has yet to institute a comprehensive guest flag policy.
Several Vermont superintendents of schools that have raised Black Lives Matters flags either did not return calls or declined to comment because they were unfamiliar with the bill.
Vice Chairman of the House Education Committee Rep. Lawrence Cupoli, R-Rutland 5-2, said he does not support the bill.
“We’re already flying other flags in an order I think is respectable,” he said, adding that he attended the raising ceremony of Montpelier High School’s Black Lives Matter flag in 2018.
“In light of what’s happening in our country, I don’t have a problem with it,” he said.
Cupoli said no action has been taken on the bill, which he said is unlikely to make it through committee.