HELENA — A pair of bills to offer tax breaks to parents of children attending private schools drew praise from some parents who wanted more options for their children and came under attack as unconstitutional from public school advocates.
The hearings on House Bill 397, by Rep. James Knox, R-Billings, and Senate Bill 282, by Rep. Dave Lewis, D-Helena, were heard simultaneously by the House and Senate Taxation committees. Most of the same people testified at each hearing.
Knox's bill provides a refundable tax credit — a dollar-for-dollar reduction of parents' or grandparents' tax liability — for their children's or grandchildren's expenses to attend “nonpublic schools.” Annual tax credits would range from up to $750 per student for this tax year and up to $2,600 a year after January 2015.
His original bill would have included home schools as well as private schools, but Knox said a series of amendments he unveiled on Monday would exclude home schools.
Approval of the bill would reduce the state K-12 school costs, Knox said, but a fiscal note estimating the costs of the measure hasn't been prepared yet.
Knox said it costs $10,500 a year this year to educate a child in public schools in Montana, while the tuition to educate a child in a Montana private high school is about $6,000 per year and tuition at private elementary schools is between $3,000 and $4,000 a year.
“Montana is only one of eight remaining states without school choice or charter schools,” Knox said, adding, “It's time for Montana to offer some school choice.”
In the Senate committee, Lewis said that his bill is about encouraging “choice, competition and quality” in education and that most states already have laws that allow tax credits, deductions or other encouragements for private, nonpublic schools.
“They have concluded that choice leads to competition and better quality,” he said. “It's time for Montana to make that choice.”
Lewis also said he is “dead serious” about the idea and that, if SB282 doesn't pass, he'll bring forth a bill to put the issue before voters as a statewide referendum.
Lewis's SB282 would grant tax credits to individuals or businesses that contribute to a nonprofit “student scholarship organization” that grants scholarships to students attending any nonpublic school. The bill says the schools do not have to be accredited.
It limits the total tax credits for 2011 for $3.5 million.
Former Helena school teacher Barbara Rush said she retired in 2005 after 30 years because of “the radical takeover” in the school system with its focus on social values through anti-bullying and sex education. She said the bills would give parents a choice of where to send their children to school.
Thane Johnson, a Kalispell lawyer, said his son “got twisted off with a group that was not good” and got involved in “serious drugs.” Johnson said he and his wife took their son took him to Stillwater Christian School in Utah, and the boy turned his life around.
“I'm not against public schools, but public schools didn't work for my son,” he said.
Sharon Nason, a licensed clinical psychologist, said public schools aren't always the best option every student. However, she said without these tax incentives, not all families can afford to send their children to private schools.
Leading the opposition to both bills was Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, a union representing teachers and other school employees, who called a refundable tax credit unconstitutional.
Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff for Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, said the bills would take revenue away from Montana's public schools system at the same time that the Legislature struggles with how to fund schools.
Tara Veazey, executive director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, said the bill has no means tests to base tax credits on a family's income.
“This would use public funds to subsidize affluent people to send their children to private schools,” she said.
Tom Keller, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm based in Virginia, said, “There's no reason to believe a tuition tax credit bill is in violation of the Montana Constitution.”
The committees didn't vote on the bills immediately.