HELENA — State Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman didn’t mince words Friday when he blasted supporters of this session’s major bill creating tax credits to help finance scholarships for kids attending private schools in Montana.
Parman, speaking to the House Taxation Committee, accused them of spreading “misinformation” on drop-out rates in public schools.
“The drop-out rate in this state never has been, and, in my lifetime, never will be 20 percent,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s probably pretty obvious that I’m pretty tired of hearing that number.
“I’m not going to qualify it as misinformation anymore. I’m going to call it disinformation.”
The strong words from Parman highlighted a string of comments slamming Senate Bill 81, as lobbyists representing public-school unions, public school boards, rural schools and school administrators denounced the measure supported by school choice proponents and asked the panel to kill it.
“We have choice (to attend private schools),” Parman said. “There is choice in Montana. … What (the supporters) should be saying is that they want fiscally, publicly supported choice.”
SB81, sponsored by Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, would create state income tax credits totaling up to $2.5 million a year for those who donate to a “school scholarship organization” that grants scholarships to kids attending private schools in Montana.
It’s this session’s signature bill for the school choice movement, which seeks to have public money or tax credits help parents who want to send their kids to a non-public school.
Lewis’ bill has passed the Senate and is now before the House. Sen. Mike Miller, R-Helmville and chairman of the Taxation Committee, said the panel will act on the bill no sooner than late next week.
Lewis also has introduced another school choice measure, which would create public charter schools — a bill similar to one killed last month in the House.
Lewis’ charter school bill, SB374, probably will be heard before the Senate Education Committee next Friday.
Legislative rules say the House must suspend its rules to accept a Senate bill that is the same as a bill previously killed by the House.
Lewis said Friday he’s been assured that SB374 differs from the earlier charter school bill and therefore won’t require a rule suspension to be accepted by the House — if it manages to get through the Senate.
“A lot of people in the Senate came to me and said, we’ve got to get this (charter school bill) going,” he said. “You can’t talk school choice without charter schools.”
Several other school choice bills also remain alive in the House.
School choice advocates, including several parents, testified Friday in favor of Lewis’ SB81, saying their children have thrived in nonpublic schools, and that they would appreciate the financial help offered by scholarship organizations.
Lewis said at the close of Friday’s hearing that school choice is an emotional issue, and that when a bill takes on an established bureaucracy like the public school system, members of that bureaucracy will get defensive.
“They simply cannot accept the fact that some people may question what they’re doing,” he told the House Taxation Committee.
Parman said the public high school drop-out rate of 20 percent often cited by school choice advocates is simply wrong.
The latest, most accurate figure for the percentage of Montana ninth-graders who left public school within four years of entering ninth grade is 16 percent, he said — and that includes people who left school for whatever reason, and who may have returned later or obtained a general-equivalency diploma.
The correct figure for the percentage of kids who dropped out of high school last year was 4.1 percent, he added.
He and other opponents slammed the bill on many fronts, saying it’s unconstitutional, asks for little accountability from private schools, and doesn’t necessarily benefit poor people.