HELENA — Montana education officials have cut off tuition assistance to a 4-year-old Columbus girl enrolled in a Christian preschool, and her parents are protesting the action as unconstitutionally targeting religious students and schools.
Eric and Kelsi Wilson have filed a complaint requesting a hearing with the state Office of Public Instruction over the agency’s refusal to provide the assistance their daughter is eligible for under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“The Wilsons seek the overturning of the OPI’s practice of prohibiting parents from independently placing their children in private religious preschools,” the complaint reads.
Office of Public Instruction spokeswoman Allyson Hagen said she can’t comment on the complaint because of student confidentiality. She cited federal regulations and a Montana Constitution clause that say education funds can’t be used for religious instruction or to aid church-run schools.
The Wilsons disagree with the state’s interpretation and say refusing to provide tuition assistance to attend a religious school is unconstitutional. The complaint claims the state is violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments by interfering with conduct undertaken for religious reasons.
The Nov. 16 complaint says there is no public preschool program offered by Columbus Public Schools, so they decided to enroll their daughter in ABC-123 University, a nearby Christian preschool.
The Wilsons’ daughter has hearing and speech-language impairments, and she received special education services through the federal program administered by the state and the Stillwater/Sweet Grass Special Services Cooperative.
The girl’s older sister has similar disabilities and attended the religious preschool with tuition assistance before going on to Columbus Elementary School, the complaint says. The cooperative also paid the 4-year-old’s tuition at ABC-123 University for the month of September before OPI officials revoked the aid.
Officials with the cooperative told the Wilsons they had to move their daughter to one of the two non-religious private preschool programs in the area to continue receiving tuition assistance, according to the complaint.
The Wilsons chose to leave her in the religious preschool instead at a cost of $150 a month, and filed their complaint.
The school shares their Christian beliefs, their daughter is doing well in the classroom and taking her away would be disruptive, the Wilsons argue.
“Parents should be able to choose what’s best for their own children. When the government provides funds to help disabled children at private schools, it cannot favor non-religious schools over religious ones,” attorney Jeremy Tedesco said in a written statement.
In response to an Associated Press request for the regulations guiding OPI’s decision, Hagen cited a section of the Code of Federal Regulations that deals with state-administered education programs. It says the use of program funds may not be used to pay for “religious worship, instruction or proselytization.”
Hagen also cited a passage in the Montana Constitution that says state and local agencies shall not make any appropriation or payment from any public fund or money to aid any church-run school, academy, seminary, college or university.
It is not clear whether OPI has scheduled a hearing, which is the first step in the complaint process that could include court if the Wilsons appeal.
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