Students and parents were joined by legislators for a rally at the state Capitol Wednesday in celebration of National School Choice Week.
Jeff Laszloffy, president and CEO of the Montana Family Foundation, spoke at the rally in favor of bringing more school choice options to the state.
“This is a movement, not a momentum,” he said.
There are 21,000 school choice events happening across the country during National School Choice Week, which has been held during the last week of January since 2011 to bring awareness to public charter schools, public magnet schools, online learning, private schools and homeschooling.
The Montana School Choice Coalition, a group of private school organizations, held the rally with homeschooled and private school students across the state to ask for support from Montana legislators. They also celebrated the introduction of federal legislation to redirect federal funds to private schools.
Laszloffy said the coalition wants to see the creation of an education savings account that would give parents the amount of money it costs to educate a student, which could be spent at a private or public school. He also vowed to continue the legal fight for a school choice law, Senate Bill 410, which passed last session but was still being debated on constitutional grounds.
SB 410 allowed tax credits for donations to scholarships at private schools. Gov. Steve Bullock let the legislation pass without his signature.
Proponents say federal courts already authorized the same types of programs. Opponents say the law is out of compliance with the state constitution, which says no government entity can make a “direct or indirect” donation to a school controlled by a religious body.
While the religious aspect of the law is going through the courts, people can still receive tax credits for donations to a private school if it doesn’t have a religious affiliation. As of now, those donations must go through the Big Sky Scholarships program. If someone makes a donation, they receive a $150 dollar-for-dollar state tax credit. The entire donation is eligible for a federal charitable deduction.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen voted for SB 410 while serving in the Legislature last session. In a letter read by her communications director, Arntzen said she supports “school flexibility.”
While she didn’t speak to her priorities as superintendent regarding school choice, she praised the Bridger Charter School and the Lincoln County Vocational School of Innovation.
“This is what progress through local control looks like,” she said. “In frontier states like Montana, school flexibility is designed by the communities that students live in.”
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, reiterated the idea that education is not one-size-fits-all. He said school choice is a solution. Senate Minority Whip Tom Facey, D-Missoula, agreed that a uniform school won’t work for everyone. He said local school boards have the authority to customize their school to meet the needs of the community, citing an aggressive college credit program in Missoula and pre-kindergarten in Great Falls.
This year’s charter school bill is being carried by a Democrat, Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder. That bill hasn’t been introduced yet. Windy Boy does not have support from his party, Facey said, adding that he opposes charter and private schools because they aren’t held to the same academic standards as public schools.
Democratic minority leaders Jenny Eck, D-Helena, and Jon Sesso, D-Butte, issued a statement supporting school choice as long as it doesn’t require public school funding.
“We will not support policies that divert funding from our public schools, which continue to welcome all Montana students and provide a wide variety of learning choices.”
School choice has returned to the national spotlight, with a proposal from President Donald Trump to provide $20 billion in federal funds to school choice programs. He also nominated Betsy DeVos, a longtime supporter of school choice, for secretary of education.
At a National School Choice Week rally in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan praised DeVos for her support of school choice, which she reiterated during her confirmation hearing Jan. 17.
“We are about to have a secretary of education who not only believes in school choice but has been fighting for school choice,” Ryan said.
At the Helena rally, a letter of support from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was read by Patrick Webb, his southwest field representative. Daines also announced his Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act, or the A-PLUS Act, which would allow federal education funds to be redirected to private schools.
“We need to empower parents to have greater control over their children’s education so they can reach their full academic potential,” Daines said in a statement. “The A-PLUS Act will expand local control of schools and return federal education dollars where they belong: closer to the classrooms.”
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., opposes Daines' bill and previously said it could prevent low-income students from having equal access to public schools.
“Jon believes any plan to turn federal education funding into block grants fails students and fails public education," spokesman Dave Kuntz said, adding that this could prevent low-income and at-risk students from receiving Title I money. "It’s another nail in the coffin of rural America, with a grossly misleading title."
Tester worked to replace No Child Left Behind with laws granting control to local school boards.