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School choice program

Montana House endorses boost for 'school choice' tax credit

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The state House endorsed a bill Friday to boost the state's tax credit program for contributing to private school scholarships from $150 to $200,000. 

House Bill 279, sponsored by House Education Committee Chair Seth Berglee, a Republican from Joliet, passed the House on second reading by a 64-36 vote. 

The bill expands on the school choice program that was revived last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The program, enacted by the 2015 Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, had initially been struck down in the state Supreme Court, which ruled the state could not fund religious programs through its tax credit program for private schools. The nation's high court reversed the state Supreme Court, saying rules written by the state Department of Revenue to implement the scholarship program could not disqualify religious schools.

“After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling... they made it clear that the tax credit scholarship is here to stay," Berglee said on the House floor Friday.

Berglee's bill raises the tax credit limit for donating to the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program from $150 to $200,000 with an initial $3 million annual cap, though that could increase if the maximum is reached. It also expands the Innovative Educational Program for public schools by the same amount. 

Opponents to the bill argue it diverges public funding for a narrow crowd, and further siphons away public funding toward private programs.

"I have a lot of concerns about this bill. How this is going to be any help to students in more rural areas?," Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, argued during the floor hearing. "That's $6 million that could go to other projects that might benefit more students or more people that's right out of our public works."

A fiscal note for the bill estimates the program would mean an $8.1 million hit to the state general fund by the 2025 fiscal year, though Berglee did not sign the note.

The bill has so far garnered support from Gov. Greg Gianforte and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, both Republicans, as well as the Montana Catholic Conference, the Montana Family Foundation and private school programs in Montana.

“In Montana, we often see students flow between public, private and homeschool learning environments,” Arntzen said in an emailed statement Friday. “As state superintendent, I have brought everyone to the table to ensure that students have a smooth transition between systems as families decide what best fits their unique educational needs."

The bill still needs to pass on a third reading next week before it moves to the upper chamber.

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