'School choice' supporters rally as Montana legislators hear tax credit bills

2013-01-28T21:45:00Z 2013-01-29T00:05:10Z 'School choice' supporters rally as Montana legislators hear tax credit billsBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
January 28, 2013 9:45 pm  • 

HELENA – Advocates of “school choice” filled the state Capitol halls Monday, in part to testify for a pair of bills creating new state income-tax credits helping finance private schools in Montana.

But they ran into a united front of opposition from Montana’s public-school community and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who said the measures essentially take public funds away from public schools and are likely unconstitutional.

“The education community is opposed to this bill, and any other bill like it,” said Marco Ferro of MEA-MFT, the union that represents public school teachers and other public employees. “School privatization schemes are not what we need in Montana. ….

“We’ve been able to keep this out of our state, and I think that is something we should be proud of.”

Ferro spoke against House Bill 213, which would enact tax credits of up to $550 per child for families who pay tuition to send their children to private schools, and was joined by school administrators, some school districts, the Montana School Boards Association, the state superintendent of public instruction and Bullock’s office in opposition.

The same coalition also testified Monday against Senate Bill 81, which would allow up to $5 million a year in tax credits for individuals or businesses that donate to “student scholarship organizations” that give scholarships to students attending private schools.

Hearings on each bill lasted more than two hours, as parents, students and teachers from private schools showed up to testify in favor of the tax credits, saying they would help families whose children need an alternative to public schools.

“This great country is great because we have choice,” said Kirk Pugsley, principal of Capstone Christian Academy in Butte. “We want the playing field to be even, so every parent who has a concern for their child can make a choice.”

The bills hit the Legislature Monday on the first day of National School Choice Week, an event proclaimed by proponents of private-school tax credits, charter schools and other policies that support alternatives to regular public schools.

Supporters of the bills, led by the Montana Family Foundation – a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of conservative social issues -- also held a rally outside the Capitol to urge passage of the measures.

U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, spoke at the rally, which was attended by about 200 people on a brisk, sunny day. Many of them wore yellow scarves handed out by the Family Foundation.

Daines, elected just three months ago as Montana’s only congressman, said too many students in Montana are dropping out of school, and that it’s important for parents to have a choice in where they educate their kids.

“We can’t take a one-size-fits-all education,” he said.

Later Monday, the House and Senate education committees had hearings on the respective tax-credit bills, but took no immediate action on either one.

Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, the sponsor of SB81, said he brought his bill forth to make private schools more of an option for parents whose children may not do well in public schools.

“Enacting a tax credit seems like a minimal contribution we can make to help the private school movement grow and flourish,” he said.

Lewis noted that his bill also includes up to $5 million in tax credits for those who donate to something called “educational improvement organizations,” which would award grants for innovative new programs in public schools.

Most supporters of both tax-credit measures were affiliated with private religious schools.

“I’m not sure what the real objection is, rather than fear – of what might be taken away from public school funding,” said Chris Bumgarner, a former public-school teacher who now directs the Mission Valley Christian Academy in Polson. “I don’t see that happening at all.”

Opponents, however, said the measures violated Montana’s constitutional ban on using public money for direct or indirect aid to religion-affiliated schools – and that private-school tax credits are using public funds that could be spent on public schools, which aren’t exactly flush with cash.

They also pointed out that the tax credits would support schools that may not be accredited and don’t have to meet the same standards as public schools.

“I think any bill that takes money away from public education as a whole does not serve the community,” said Darlene Schottle, superintendent of schools in Kalispell. “Taxpayer money should fund education that is available to everyone.”

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