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MT House Republicans advance first "school choice’ bill

Bills diverts public funds to private-ed account
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Posted at 6:21 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 11:13:25-05

HELENA — On a nearly party-line vote, Republicans in the Montana House Thursday endorsed the first “school choice” bill of the 2021 session, to use public-education funds to help pay some expenses of disabled children who attend private school in Montana.

The House voted 68-32 to advance House Bill 329, which sets up an educational savings account that parents of disabled kids can tap for expenses at a private school.

The account would be financed by the public money that otherwise would go to the public school district, where the child lives, if they attended that school.

That money would be diverted to the account once they leave the public school to attend a private school. The state Office of Public Instruction would administer the account.

“This is a bill that makes it possible for parents to help this special group of kids,” said Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, in support of the measure. “It does so effectively and it enables parents to be even more involved in their (kids’) education.”

All 67 House Republicans and one Democrat voted for the measure; 32 Democrats opposed it.

The measure faces one more vote in the House before advancing to the Senate.

HB329 is the first of what could be several bills this year in Montana that use public money or tax credits to help children attend private schools, known by supporters as “school choice” legislation.

Almost all such bills have been vetoed by Democratic governors in Montana since 2005 and are usually opposed by Democrats, who object to using public funds to help finance private schools.

“I am an unflinching opponent of any legislation or action that would funnel our public resources for private institutions,” Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said Thursday on the House floor, in opposition to HB329.

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Rep. Moffie Funk, R-Helena.

But Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is a supporter of school choice, and, in fact, requested HB329.

A fiscal note attached to the bill said HB329 would cost taxpayers about $780,000 a year, once in effect – based on an estimate that 100 special-needs kids would take advantage of it, by switching to a private school and setting up a special account to pay some of their expenses.

Another school-choice measure before the Legislature – House Bill 279 – has an estimated annual price tag for the state starting at almost $5 million. The bill would greatly expand a state income-tax credit for donations to scholarship funds that help kids attending private schools in Montana.

HB279 has been languishing in the House Education Committee for more than a month – although Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, who sponsored HB329, said earlier this week that she expects the former bill will also be coming to the House floor.

Vinton said Thursday that families with special-needs kids need flexibility in choosing the best educational setting for their child, and that HB329 could help them finance a private school that may provide better service than the local public school.

Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, also took issue with opponents’ argument that the bill is taking money away from public education.

“Public money does not belong to the government,” she said. “That’s my money and the parents’ money and the money of every person in this room and in this state. It does not belong to the government and it should be a parents’ choice on how they are going to educate their children.”