HELENA — Three “school choice” bills that use state funds or tax credits to help finance private or charter schools passed out of legislative committees Wednesday on mostly party line votes, with Democrats solidly opposed.
Republicans on the Senate and House education committees, with one exception, all voted for the bills, which now advance to the House or Senate floors for debate.
“I really, strongly believe that the idea of (school) choice is something that should be looked at,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, the sponsor of one of the measures.
Not one Democrat voted for any of the bills. They said Montana has a fine system of public schools and does not need to be using public funds to help finance private education ventures.
“I don’t see the problem (with public schools),” said Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman. “What I do see is an agenda. It’s a national agenda to put public money in the hands of nonpublic and private schools.”
The bills passing out of committee Wednesday were:
— Senate Bill 81, sponsored by Lewis, which creates state income-tax credits for contributing to nonprofit organizations that offer scholarships to children attending private schools.
The credits are 40 percent of an individual’s donation, up to an aggregate total of $2.5 million for all credits in a year.
— House Bill 213, which offers state income-tax credits worth up to $550 per student attending a nonpublic school. The tax credit can be taken by anyone who pays the child’s tuition for private school.
Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is the bill’s sponsor. It’s estimated to cost the state treasury $6 million the next two years.
— HB315, which allows creation of public charter schools, although they could be run by a private entity. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, says the schools will receive public money that would pay for the students as if they were attending a public, non-charter school.
SB81 and HB213 passed their respective committees on strictly party line votes, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.
The charter school bill passed the House Education Committee on a 10-8 vote, with all Democrats and Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, opposed.
Lewis’s bill, however, was amended to reduce the scope of its tax credits.
In its original form, SB81 said any individual or corporation could write off its entire donation to a student-scholarship organization, up to $5 million a year total, for all credits. If one person donated $5 million to such an organization and had a tax liability of that amount, they would have been able to reduce their tax bill by the entire amount
Lewis agreed to an amendment to get it out of committee, reducing the aggregate credits to $2.5 million a year and saying individuals could write off only 40 percent of their donations and corporations 20 percent.
“This is a start,” he said after the committee vote. “It will probably provide an opportunity for a few more people to get scholarships to let their parents make a choice on where they go to school. Some who were working (on the bill) were very disappointed about (the credit) being cut back.”
Lewis said he thinks the change will more than cut in half the bill’s estimated $16.5 million impact over the next two years.
Democrats on the Senate Education Committee still opposed the measure, saying it’s likely unconstitutional because it essentially takes public money to be used to finance private, religious schools.
Republicans on the House Education Committee made no comments in support of either HB315 or HB213 before voting for them.