HELENA — A Republican lawmaker on Friday revived a proposal to provide tax credits for private education that narrowly failed the 2013 Montana Legislature.
Rep. Seth Berglee of Joliet introduced House Bill 433, which would give up to $1,000 in non-refundable tax credits to those who pay tuition for elementary or secondary school.
For the first three years, the credits would be limited to increases in tuition and fee payments, which Berglee said would restrict the benefits primarily to families who move their kids from public to private schools.
“The money aspect, it’s really designed to get people who would like to move to be able to move,” Berglee said in front of the House Education Committee.
Beginning in 2019, the credit would no longer be limited to increased payments. Anyone could receive up to $1,000 off their taxes to make up for tuition and fees paid for elementary or secondary education.
Republican Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick introduced similar legislation last session. House Bill 213 made it through the House of Representatives but died in the Senate on a vote of 24-24.
Opponents said the proposal would violate a provision of the Montana Constitution that prohibits “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property” to sectarian schools.
“We need to keep our public dollars in our public schools,” said Will Randall, a resident of Kalispell.
Joe Balyeat, state director for Americans for Prosperity Montana, said the bill circumvents that provision by providing tax credits to individuals, not institutions.
Committee Chair Rep. Sarah Laszloffy, a Republican from Billings, overruled requests from Democratic Reps. Edie McClafferty and Moffie Funk to allow opponents longer than the total 15 minutes Laszloffy allotted them to speak. More than a dozen people testified against the bill. Balyeat was the only supporter.
Berglee and Balyeat said the bill’s intention is to put competition between educational institutions on a level playing field and allow low-income students the ability choose private school.
“The truth is that this school choice tax credit would give poor families the same choices that rich families have to choose their children’s best education option,” Balyeat said.
Sharla Crawford, a public school teacher in Helena, said financially needy families could not afford up-front costs to attend private schools, even if they’d later be reimbursed by the state.
Randall said he only attended private Lutheran school as a kid in Montana because the church provided a scholarship for his family, which was not well off.
“A non-refundable tax credit won’t help families like the one I grew up in,” Randall said.
Berglee said his proposal would bring “across the line” public students who are on the verge of affording private education.
“I’m not saying that this is going to get the poorest person,” Berglee said. “It’s not going to probably get everyone to private school that wants to be in private school, but it does provide a wider gap for the people that would like to get into it.”
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