In School Choice Debate, a Sharp Divide

By Beacon Staff

Advocates say “school choice” would improve Montana’s education environment by doing exactly what the name suggests: offer more choice.

Opponents say school choice will erode the state’s public school system by improperly using taxpayers’ money for private education.

The argument boils down to fundamental questions over how the state should educate its children and what role the government can play. Montana remains one of only a handful of states without some kind of school choice program, a definition that includes charter schools, private school tax credits and vouchers.

“We are behind the times,” Stillwater Christian School Superintendent Dan Makowski said last week.

But just across town, the assistant superintendent of Kalispell public schools, Dan Zorn, says Montana has been right in holding firm against school choice and points to the state’s high-performing schools as evidence.

“Instead of looking at ways to pull money away from public schools, put the money into the system and allow us to continue to innovate and build upon our achievements,” Zorn said.

Against that backdrop, the debate over school choice has ramped up in Montana, with the Legislature once again taking up the issue. School choice advocates held a rally at the state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 28, the same day that legislators held committee hearings on two private school tax-credit bills.

Senate Bill 81, sponsored by Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, would establish tax credits for businesses or individuals who donate to “student scholarship organizations” that offer scholarships for private school students or “educational improvement organizations” that provide grants for “innovative educational programs” in public schools.

House Bill 213, sponsored by Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would allow tax credits up to $550 per child for families paying private school tuition.

The House and Senate committee hearings both lasted more than two hours and included passionate testimony from both advocates and critics. Neither committee took immediate action.

Public school officials and teachers’ unions opposed to the bills have a powerful ally on their side: Gov. Steve Bullock. The Democrat has argued adamantly against private school tax credits, saying they funnel taxpayers’ money away from public schools and may even be unconstitutional.

School choice proponents have their own high-ranking politicians on their side, including Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines. Both Republicans spoke at the Jan. 28 rally before the committee hearings.

Proponents argue that tax credits will offer more options to families whose kids aren’t doing well in public schools, for any number of reasons, including class size. Makowski has been following the debate in Helena closely and says he doesn’t have a preference on either the House or Senate bill.

“We’d be glad for any relief for our parents,” Makowski said.

Zorn has taken exception to another pro-school choice argument that he’s heard – essentially that public schools aren’t performing well. Advocates often cite Florida’s high scores on international PIRLS and TIMMS student assessments, touting the emergence of education alternatives in bringing up the state’s scores.

But Zorn has compiled research showing that students from Montana and especially Kalispell score just as high on assessments as those from Florida, and higher in some cases. And he says that statistics from other places, including urban areas with different educational challenges, can’t be compared to Montana’s.

“I believe some of the bills are coming from a false premise that our public schools do not perform well internationally,” Zorn said. “That’s inaccurate. If you look at the numbers, you can make a very strong case that the reform efforts are unnecessary and ill-advised.”

For his part, Makowski agrees that struggling public schools elsewhere in the nation shouldn’t be factored into the discussion here.

“I don’t think that’s our argument in Montana, but in Montana we have people that need to have a choice,” he said. “The intention is not to destroy public schools – it’s to give people who need a choice the opportunity. There’s a fairness to it.”

Makowski understands that Bullock will likely veto any private school tax credit bill. But he believes having the discussion now builds a foundation for future passage. And advocates have also mulled the possibility of placing the issue on a referendum and taking it straight to the voters.

“It’s about continuing to have people understand and learn about it and hopefully have the governor understand that there are some benefits to everybody,” Makowski said. “This is the third (legislative) session that we’ve been pretty active in it. So we’ll just keep after it.”

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