School choice advocates -- losers at 2013 session -- vow to return with same bills

2013-05-17T16:59:00Z 2013-05-18T00:03:21Z School choice advocates -- losers at 2013 session -- vow to return with same billsBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — While advocates of school choice struck out again this year in Montana, failing to enact a bill providing tax credits or any public money for private or charter schools, they say they’re not giving up.

“We just have to keep working on it,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, the sponsor of two major school choice bills at the 2013 Legislature. “I just think the inclusion of this issue is too important to go away.”

Lewis served his last session in 2013, because of term limits, but said Friday he’ll be working during the next year to find a fellow legislator to carry the bills in 2015.

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation – a major backer of the bills – also wrote on the organization’s website last week that he hopes to create enough public support and pressure to compel Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to sign a school choice bill into law in 2015.

Almost two weeks ago, Bullock vetoed the only school choice bill that made it through the Legislature: Senate Bill 81, sponsored by Lewis, which would have created $2.5 million a year in state income tax credits for donors to nonprofit scholarship organizations that grant scholarships to children attending private schools.

In his veto message, Bullock said he is against subsidizing private schools with “tax revenues redirected from the public treasury.”

Montana is one of only several states with no school choice laws.

Lawmakers killed a half-dozen other school choice bills at the 2013 Legislature, including another tax credit bill, two charter school bills and three bills creating tax-supported vouchers for various students attending non-public schools.

Democrats in the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, uniformly opposed all school choice bills, as did the public-school community and the state’s largest labor union, MEA-MFT, which represents teachers, other school employees and many non-school workers. Enough Republicans opposed the measures to help Democrats kill all but SB81.

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, said he’s disappointed that SB81 made it to the governor’s desk, and that its passage was the product of some late-session vote-trading in the House. The bill emerged from the House Appropriations Committee on an 11-10 vote two days before the Legislature ended and passed the House 54-45 on the session’s final day.

“Now (school choice advocates) are just going to say, ‘We’re only one governor away from making this happen, and if you just keep giving us money, we’ll be in business next session,’” he said Friday.

Feaver said Montana families already have plenty of school choice, both within the public-school system and among private and home schools.

So-called school choice advocates are really just advocates for non-public schools, and want to use public money to subsidize that choice, Feaver said, undermining the funding for options within the public-school system.

“You can’t tell me that if we go down this school choice road, that we won’t have a real conflict over (education) funding,” Feaver said. “It’s not just public schools that lose revenue, either; it’s the whole state that loses money.”

Lewis and other advocates of school choice argue that not every child thrives in public school, and that some of those kids’ families can’t afford private school and could use some help in the form of tax credits or scholarships supported by tax credits.

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