As Montana legislators wrap up their legislative session, school reform measures have made some progress for the first time in a largely blue, traditional, and rural state.
Although a proposal to allow charter schools in the state failed in the Senate after six Republicans switched their votes, the House and Senate passed tax-credit scholarship proposals, which now await the governor’s review.
Senate Bill 81, sponsored by state Sen. Dave Lewis (R- Helena), would create state income-tax credits for donations to nonprofit organizations that offer scholarships for children attending private schools.
“[Democrats] say our public schools are perfect, … but almost 10 percent of students are either homeschooled or in private school now,” Lewis said. “That leads me to believe some people are making an [alternate] choice.”
Lewis had to make some concessions for SB 81 to clear the Senate. His original proposal allowed deductions to total $5 million, but the final measure is capped at $2.5 million annually. He also would originally have allowed donors 100 percent credits, but now individuals can write off 40 percent, and corporations 20 percent. This means, for example, that an individual donation of $100 equals a $40 Montana tax deduction.
“I think it will be used very quickly,” he said.
Although Republicans generally favored and Democrats opposed the measures, SB 81 had the backing of Catholic bishops, representing the largest percentage of private schools in the state.
Personal Tuition Credits
House Bill 213 would let anyone paying private tuition receive a tax credit for the amount, up to $550.
“It’s fairly modest,” said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls). “This one is more palatable to the representatives of the legislature because it doesn’t have any direct funding impact on public schools. It just gives relief to people who are going to school right now.”
Montana has approximately 130 private schools. The state spends approximately $10,500 per year for each of the 142,000 students enrolled in public schools.
Reform Gaining Momentum
Montana has shifted markedly toward school choice in recent years, Lewis said.
“Legislatures don’t vote for these bills unless they think their constituents support them on it,” he said. “All of a sudden we’re moving bills with some pretty good margins.”
The Montana Family Foundation (MFF) is the state’s lead school choice organization and helped write the legislation.
“Montana started the task for school choice about four years ago, and that’s just three legislative sessions ago,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of MFF. “It’s a heavy lift but gaining momentum. We like that tax credits have no strings attached.”
Half of Montana parents would prefer to send their child to a regular public school, while the other half would like to send their child to a charter, virtual, private, or home school, according to a recent survey by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
“The parents are excited about the possibility that they’ll be able to have education options for their kids that have not been available to them before,” Laszloffy said. “So we’ve got parents pushing hard.”
Even so, the majority of parents in the poll viewed Montana’s education system as good or excellent.
The public charter school bill, House Bill 315, sponsored by Rep. Austin Knudsen (R- Culbertson), passed its second reading, but failed a vote the next day, 49-50. From the first vote to the second, five Republicans switched votes.
“The interest in school choice comes out of the urban areas,” Fitzpatrick said. “When you get out into the small towns, … that’s where you’re starting to get the pressure on the representatives, especially the districts that are considered class b, class c schools.”
Parents are interested in charter schools, which exchange freedom from certain mandates for tighter accountability, but the state teachers union hates the concept, Laszloffy said.
“The teachers’ union, when they ramp it up like that, they can really trigger votes,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick called it a “strong possibility” Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will veto the choice bills.
Bullock’s spokesman recently said parent “anecdotes” were inadequate get the governor to support school choice, Laszloffy said.
“I found that insulting,” he said. “These anecdotes are stories from real people.”
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