Montana a Battleground for School Choice

By Beacon Staff

Last week, legislators from six states, including reportedly more than 40 from Montana, attended a two-day conference called “School Choice in America’s Great Northwest” at Missoula’s Hilton Garden Inn.

The lawmakers and other attendees listened to school-choice advocates from around the country discuss a range of issues in their field, including charter schools, private school tax credits and education savings accounts.

Jeff Laszloffy, whose Laurel-based Montana Family Foundation was one of the event’s three sponsors, said Montana is one of only seven states to have not passed school-choice legislation. Bills have failed at the last two legislative sessions.

But as the school-choice movement spreads across the nation, Laszloffy and other advocates believe Montana’s time has come.

“I think we’re on the front end of the tsunami – it’s sweeping across the United States,” Laszloffy said in an interview after the Missoula conference. “Parents want choice, not one-size-fits-all education.”

The June 12-13 conference, which was also sponsored by the Bozeman-based Montana Policy Institute and The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice out of Indiana, was yet another illustration of an increasingly apparent reality: Montana has become a battleground state for the school-choice debate.

That battle is gearing up to play out publicly and heatedly during the 2013 Legislature, setting up a showdown with public school advocates and causing a divide in the Republican caucus, including among its high-ranking leaders. Critics of school-choice proposals tend to be just as vocal and adamant as advocates.

Adding to the intrigue is a group of wealthy movers and shakers who have gotten behind Montana’s school-choice movement, including RightNow Technologies founder Greg Gianforte of Bozeman, Semitool founder Ray Thompson of Kalispell and part-time Montana resident Craig Barrett, the retired CEO and chairman of Intel.

In April, the private scholarship organization ACE Scholarships out of Colorado announced it was moving into Montana, with Gianforte and his wife Susan pledging $4.6 million through their family foundation “to give hundreds of scholarships to Montana children.” Thompson and Barrett are among the Montana board members.

In an announcement from ACE Scholarships, Gianforte expressed disappointment with the state’s lack of school-choice policies.

“It is clear that our state’s policies are not in line with the needs and desires of its citizens,” Gianforte said. “That is why Susan and I have committed our time, energy and resources to this issue.”

There is a list of school-choice bill draft requests already queued up for the 2013 legislative session, addressing such issues as private school tax credits, generally revising school law, education savings accounts and charter schools.

Advocates say the proposals give more freedom of schooling choice to Montana families, helping more families afford private school and offering options for kids who have struggled in public schools. Laszloffy said the result would be lower dropout and remediation rates, and subsequently a better-educated workforce.

But critics contend that school-choice proposals harm the public school system, subsidize affluent people with public money so they can send their children to private schools and in some cases may be unconstitutional. They also point to reports that show Montana has one of the nation’s best public education systems.

Many of the 2013 session’s bill draft requests are from Sen. Dave Lewis, a Republican from Helena. Lewis introduced a failed bill during the 2011 session that proposed offering tax credits to “individual and corporate taxpayers” who contribute to a scholarship organization for non-public school students. A similar bill failed in 2009.

At hearings during the last legislative session, public school advocates blasted Lewis’ bill and a House bill from Rep. James Knox of Billings that would have provided refundable tax credits for private school families. Among the critics were the president of the teachers union and an official from the Office of Public Instruction.

Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a recent interview that school-choice ideas come from conservative out-of-state groups and don’t fit Montana, as demonstrated by the “bipartisan rejection” of past sessions. She said the “privatization of our public education” would “starve public schools when they are already struggling.”

“Our public schools are already squeezing every penny to provide what I think is a top-notch education,” Juneau said. “To divert any of that funding would really harm community-based education. I don’t believe in diverting public funds to fund private schools.”

Where there are areas of the public system that need improvement, Juneau said, “work with us to make it better.”

“You don’t have to create an entirely different system and bulldoze the public system to get the job done,” she said.

The bill drafts requested by Lewis and others for the 2013 session seem destined to receive opposition from the same sources as past sessions, with Democrats across the board likely to reject the proposals along with pockets of Republicans.

“We have people that have very philosophical differences in the Republican caucus,” Lewis, who in the past was opposed to private school tax credits, said. “I’m going to have a really tough fight. It’s certainly controversial.”

“I think school choice should be the No. 1 issue in this state,” he added. “Research shows freedom of choice improves education quality.”

Hints of the looming inter-party battle among Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, could be detected during the recent Flathead legislative primaries. Rollan Roberts II, a political newcomer, frequently talked about “parental choice and transparency in education” as he challenged incumbent Sen. Bruce Tutvedt for his Senate District 3 seat.

Days before the June 5 primary election, the superintendent of Kalispell’s Stillwater Christian School, Dan Makowski, and the headmaster of Whitefish Christian Academy, Todd Kotila, sent out nearly identically worded emails to supporters about the importance of school-choice legislation and the upcoming election.

The emails discussed the financial benefits of tax credits for private school families and called on school supporters to “cast your vote for a candidate who will help our cause in Helena.” Though the emails didn’t explicitly say who to vote for, they made clear who not to vote for.

“A major obstacle to school choice legislation in our state is our local Senator, Bruce Tutvedt,” both school officials wrote. “He opposes tax credits and does not support school choice generally.

“On June 5th there is a very important primary where we will have an opportunity to select a representative who will wholeheartedly endorse our efforts to provide tax credit relief for parents paying tuition.”

Tutvedt gets much of the heat among pro-school choice Republicans for killing private school tax credits last session. The Kalispell senator made it clear he would not pass Lewis’ bill out of his Senate Tax Committee.

Tutvedt, last session’s Senate president pro tempore and expected to be one of the chamber’s top leaders again if he wins the general election, has indicated he won’t budge on his stance. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings is among the powerful Republicans positioned on the other side of the school-choice debate.

“I’m a proponent of private schools, but I won’t do anything that harms public schools,” Tutvedt said last week. “Montana has one of the best public school systems in the nation. It still needs to be held accountable. But when you have a good system you shouldn’t tear it down to do something different.”

In addition to hurting public schools, Tutvedt said private school tax credits aren’t constitutional in Montana and would raise taxes. Calling the credits a “large new entitlement program,” he said his focus is on lowering taxes.

“If they want to raise taxes to fund their tax credits, they can have their tax credits,” Tutvedt said. “But I’ll vote against it. That’s the legislative process.”

Proponents say tax credits won’t raise taxes and that less money is spent per student in private school than public school. They contend that the constitutional question has been answered in court challenges in other states. And in the case of scholarship tax credits, as proposed in Lewis’ bill, they argue that state money is never used.

“They can donate pre-tax to scholarship organizations,” Laszloffy said. “The dollars never become state. The money is never transferred from the private sector to the public sector and back again.”

Tutvedt sees the credits as a manipulation of the tax system.

“I think they should go through the front door and through the appropriations process,” he said.

Tutvedt believes Stillwater Christian School and the Whitefish Christian Academy violated the law with their pre-primary emails by wading into politics and must now forfeit their tax-exempt status.

“My church is very careful not to put politics on the pulpit and I’m proud of that,” Tutvedt said.

Kotila and Makowski say the emails were worded as to not specifically endorse a candidate, though Makowski acknowledges the emails did oppose Tutvedt.

“It was in opposition to Tutvedt because he’s in opposition to us,” Makowski said. “I think people who take issue with us – it’s really bullying. We should be free to speak about issues that impact our institution.”

Lewis said he will be more prepared to defend his school-choice legislation next session, after he “got the heck beat out of” him in 2011.

“I got so motivated I went to a couple of training sessions to learn more about the issue and see how to present it,” Lewis said. “If I can get the bill out of the Senate, it can pass the House. My problem is the Senate.”

Laszloffy says one other consideration is whether there is a Republican or Democrat in the governor’s office, perhaps waiting with a veto pen in hand.

“Judging by the momentum I see here,” he said, “I know we’re going to get these bills through.”

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