The director of Americans for Prosperity announced the creation of a Montana school choice advocacy group on Friday. 

The Montana School Choice Coalition is backed by a mix of conservative political and private school organizations. According to a press release from AFP, the group will "aim to raise awareness about the benefits of school choice as a solution for improving public and private education."

Specifically, the group will focus on an education savings account program and a tax credit scholarship program. 

ESAs redirect public money typically allotted to school districts on a per-pupil basis to parents instead, who can spend the money at public or private schools for approved educational services.

Arizona and Florida both have ESA programs, which are typically geared toward students with disabilities. Advocates say the programs are more efficient and give parents more control over their child's education, but proposals in many states have received criticism from groups who argue that the programs siphon money away from public schools and lack accountability. 

The coalition's website cites Arizona's program as an example of a well-run ESA program. 

Montana passed a modest tax credit scholarship program in 2015, which offered a $150 tax credit for those donating to scholarship groups for private schools or “innovative educational programs” at public schools.

But the Department of Revenue initially excluded religious schools — and therefore the vast majority of private schools in Montana — from the program. A lawsuit challenged the rule, and the department dropped the rule after a Kalispell judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop the department from enforcing the rule. 

In a column distributed to newspapers, Americans for Prosperity Montana state director David Herbst said the group would push to "unlock the potential of a better functioning tax credit scholarship program," in 2017 legislative session.

Two school groups, the Montana Federation of Independent Schools and the Catholic Schools Association, back the coalition, as do conservative political organizations Americans for Prosperity Montana, the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Policy Institute.

ACE Scholarships and Big Sky Scholarships also are part of the coalition. The two groups offer scholarships to students for private schools, using funds from private donations and serving as official student scholarship organizations for the tax credit program. 

ACE's private funding has largely come from gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte in past years. The Gianforte Family Trust also has given to the Montana Family Foundation. 

Democrats and teachers unions in Montana have generally opposed school choice programs in Montana, though Bullock allowed the tax credit bill to become law.



Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.