School Choice Bill Becomes Law Without Governor’s Signature

The pilot program will provide income-tax credits for donations of up to $150 made to scholarships for private K-12 education

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana legislators instituted a new state law that reflects a national GOP initiative to boost private education options.

Senate Bill 410, one of six Republican “school choice” proposals this year, became law on Friday without Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s signature.

The pilot program will provide income-tax credits for donations of up to $150 made to scholarships for private K-12 education or “innovative educational programs” at public schools.

Bill sponsor Sen. Llew Jones said in March he expects the statute to help end a boycott of either private or public school dollars he’s seen during his decade of public service.

The Conrad Republican did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Under the new law, tax credits would be provided for up to $3 million on either side, but the state would give out 10 percent more every year the cap is reached. Democrats argued during the vetting process that a per-student cap would be more appropriate, given that Montana’s 145,000 public school students vastly outnumber the state’s 7,500 private school students.

Donations to public schools will be collected by the state and divided among school districts in proportion to the geographic regions or districts where the money came from. The funds will be used to modernize schools’ technology and support programs using it.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said during a Senate floor debate that dividing the funds proportionally will leave out the state’s most needy students.

Donations to scholarship organizations for private education, including non-accredited schools but excluding home schools, will be reported to the state for tax credits to be approved.

A provision of the law states that no one student can accept donated scholarships totaling more than 50 percent of the average cost the state would pay to publicly educate a student for one year.

Montana’s governor has 10 days to sign or veto bills before they automatically become law.

Bullock, who has vetoed similar proposals, said in a statement Monday that he allowed SB410 to go through because it does not divert or reduce state funding for public schools. Members of his administration said other “school choice” bills proposed this year would have negatively impacted the state’s public education system.

“While I am concerned about using public resources for private education, I am supportive of the provisions of the bill that allow taxpayers to direct money to build upon innovative programming in local public schools,” Bullock said.

The new law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2016, and terminate eight years later on Dec. 31, 2023.

Other bills to offer tax credits for private school tuition, charter schools and public funding for disabled kids to go to private schools were either killed in the Legislature or vetoed.