Teachers Launch Push To Do Away With Philosophical Exemption

Feb 11, 2015

A new and influential player is joining the debate over Vermont’s child immunization law. And the Vermont-NEA will urge lawmakers to scrap a philosophical exemption blamed for falling vaccination rates in public schools.

The teachers union is the state’s largest, and perhaps it most politically powerful labor organization. Its members also happen to spend their workdays in public schools. So when the debate over child vaccination laws reignited in Montpelier last month, Vermont-NEA President Martha Allen took notice.

“And she was starting to worry that too many schools in Vermont were dangerously close to losing community herd … immunity to some diseases,” says Vermont-NEA spokesman Darren Allen.

Allen took her concerns to the union’s board, which voted unanimously this past weekend to endorse legislation – sponsored by Rutland Sen. Kevin Mullin – that would do away with what’s known as the philosophical exemption.

Current law requires children to have certain vaccinations, for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, before they can attend public school. But the law also allows parents to easily sidestep that mandate by invoking the philosophical exemption.

In Vermont, the parents of more kids per capita than just about any other state have used the exemption to avoid at least one mandated vaccination. And some public health officials say immunization rates at some schools have sunk to dangerously low levels.

"The decision was swift and unanimous and the overarching sentiment of our board is that public safety of our children is paramount. The philosophical exemption is used at too high of a level in Vermont." - Darren Allen, spokesman for Vermont-NEA

“The decision was swift and unanimous and the overarching sentiment of our board is that public safety of our children is paramount,” Darren Allen says. “The philosophical exemption is used at too high of a level in Vermont.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin has emerged as the most powerful opponent of the push to do away with the philosophical exemption. Shumlin says parents should get their children vaccinated. But he says current law does a fine job balancing public safety against parental rights.

“So I think we did a pretty good job of walking a very difficult balance between common sense – vaccinating your kids – and parents who think it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” Shumlin said last week.

"I think we did a pretty good job of walking a very difficult balance between common sense – vaccinating your kids – and parents who think it's absolutely the wrong thing to do." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

Darren Allen, however, says teachers believe the misguided decisions of a few have begun to threaten the public safety of their students.

“We’ve heard what the governor has said about vaccines, and we’re concerned with the company he’s keeping,” Allen said. “We hope the governor takes a long hard look at what that does. And we hope that he joins Sen. Mullin in putting public safety at the forefront.”

Darren Allen says the union hopes its political firepower will lend the legislation the momentum it needs to succeed in 2015.

“This organizations stands ready to lend the support of its members, whether its through having teachers come and testify to the importance of vaccinations, whether it’s through our communications channels, and giving Sen. Mullin’s efforts the political support that we believe it deserves,” he said.

The bill would preserve medical and religious exemptions in the vaccine law.