Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation speaks on the courthouse lawn in Billings during a rally in 2010.

Advocates for “school choice” — the use of tax credits or public money to help finance public-school alternatives in Montana like charter or private schools — have hit a high-water mark this Legislature, getting a major bill through a chamber for the first time.

But this point of success hasn’t happened by accident, as a collection of national groups, wealthy individuals and one very active state organization has helped push the issue forward.

The state organization is the Montana Family Foundation, a group based in Laurel and known for its conservative push on social issues, such as opposing gay rights and abortion.

Yet in recent years, the foundation has spearheaded the school-choice movement in Montana, lobbying the issue at the Legislature, organizing school-choice conferences and throwing its political support behind candidates that will vote for school choice.

The Montana Family Foundation also gets assistance and counsel from national groups like the Friedman Foundation and the Institute for Justice, well-financed organizations promoting and defending school choice across the nation.

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, says he got involved in the issue several years ago when he was approached by Greg Gianforte, the then-CEO and founder of RightNow Technologies Inc., a software development firm in Bozeman.

Gianforte, according to Laszloffy, said he was having trouble getting qualified, educated employees from Montana to work at RightNow, and asked if the Foundation could work to make Montana more friendly to alternative school choices.

Gianforte, who engineered the 2012 sale of RightNow to software giant Oracle Corp. for more than $1.8 billion, is a financial supporter of the Family Foundation, and his wife, Susan, is the chair of the nonprofit organization’s board.

Gianforte also chairs the board of Petra Academy, a private K-12 school in Bozeman that offers a “classical and Christian” education, and he and his wife have given tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican political candidates and the Republican Party in Montana. Laszloffy, who says going to a private school as a kid helped change his own life and education, agreed to enlist the Family Foundation on the issue of school choice.

“It just resounded with me, because of my background, and the huge change for me, because there was another option (besides public school),” Laszloffy said in an interview last week. “So, we undertook the education effort (on school choice).”

Montana is one of only eight states with no school-choice options — no tax credits or “vouchers” that help parents send kids to private schools, no charter schools.

Bills to enact these options face fierce opposition from teachers’ unions and Montana’s public-education community, and have rarely made it out of a legislative committee, let alone passed the Legislature.

Last month, the Montana Senate voted 26-20 to pass Senate Bill 81, which would allow up to $2.5 million a year in state income-tax credits for donations to a “student scholarship organization” that would hand out scholarships to students attending private schools. It’s now before the House.

The Montana House killed a charter-school bill last month, but Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, is sponsoring a similar measure heard for the first time Friday in a Senate committee.

Lewis, also the sponsor of SB81, voted against a private-school tax credit bill in 2009, but became a convert to the idea and sponsored the bill in 2011 and this year.

He says he changed his mind on the issue after the Helena School District and board “just sort of brushed off” concerns raised by his constituents about a controversial sex-education program.

“I thought, the reason why they can do that is because they’re a monopoly,” he says. “I thought maybe competition and choice could make a difference here. … Making them more responsive through competition should be a good thing.”

Lewis also attended a pair of conferences put on by the Friedman Foundation, in Indiana and California, where he met with lawmakers from other states that had school choice.

“They felt it had improved the public school systems, because it had to be more responsive to the competition,” he says.

The Friedman Foundation paid Lewis’ expenses to come to the conferences.

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Jeff Reed, communications director for the Friedman Foundation, says the group headquartered in Indianapolis serves as a resource on school choice, and doesn’t push the agenda in any state unless local groups ask for assistance.

The foundation is the creation of the late Milton Friedman, a free-market economist from the University of Chicago.

Reed says Friedman, who pioneered school choice in the 1950s, felt that government should fund education for all, but shouldn’t necessarily run all the schools, and that the money for public education should follow the student.

“It’s not an indictment of public schools,” he says. “It’s just a recognition that every child is different. … To me, school choice is the best accountability agent you have out there.”

The Friedman Foundation had a $4 million budget in 2011. The Institute for Justice, which spends part of its resources defending school-choice legislation in court, reported $19 million in revenue in 2011 and $28 million in assets. Neither group publicly reveals its donors, but say the money comes from individuals and other foundations.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which has been active in Montana, had an $8 million budget in 2010. A spokesman said its largest funders are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund.

Another occasional figure in Montana’s school-choice debate is Craig Barrett, the retired CEO of Intel Corp., who owns ranch property in the Bitterroot Valley.

Barrett’s home is in Paradise Valley, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, and he chairs a charter-school system in Arizona that has two high schools which recently ranked among the top high schools in the nation, by U.S. World & News Report.

He spoke last summer at a Missoula conference on school choice, co-sponsored by the Montana Family Foundation.

Via email, Barrett says he’s just trying to get out the message in Montana that education options should be available to children and their parents, and that charter schools don’t “destroy public schools.”

Barrett and Gianforte also sit on the Montana advisory board for ACE Scholarships, a nonprofit group that helps low- and moderate-income families send their kids to private schools. The Gianfortes’ foundation gave the group $4.6 million last year to finance scholarships in Montana.

Laszloffy says many Republican state lawmakers and candidates attended the Missoula conference co-sponsored by the Family Foundation, but that not a single Democratic lawmaker from Montana came — though they were invited.

At the 2013 Legislature, no Democrat has cast a vote for any school-choice bill, in committee or on the floor.

Denise Juneau, Montana’s state superintendent of schools and a Democrat, says she simply doesn’t believe that public money should be used in any way to promote or assist private schools.

She also notes that none of the purveyors of school choice, who say education needs innovation, has come to her with money or offers of help for improving public-school programs.

“We’ve never been approached by them to have those sorts of partnerships,” she says. “If they want to bring money to the table, we’re willing to have that discussion.”

Laszloffy says school choice shouldn’t be a partisan issue, nothing that it exists in 42 other states and has been supported by liberals and conservatives.

He says his group will keep leading the charge to educate lawmakers and the public on the issue, until Montana has some form of school choice.

“We’re just going to keep educating until we win the argument, and then we’re going to win the vote,” he says. “We’re not here to destroy the public school system at all. We are here to find options for kids who would otherwise drop out. And we’re not going away.”

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