Montana Governor Fights School Choice

Published May 22, 2015

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) doesn’t like school choice. So much so, he vetoed a school choice program for students with special needs and refused to sign a bill creating a relatively modest tax credit scholarship program, all in less than one month’s time.

On April 30, Bullock vetoed House Bill 322, which would have created education savings accounts for students with disabilities between the ages of 5 and 19 and for siblings of students who qualified. Parents of qualified students would have received funding and had the option to customize their child’s education, using funding allotted to the student for private school tuition, tutoring, therapy, and other approved services.

In his veto statement, Bullock wrote, “The bill’s definition of ‘qualified student’ is very broad, and would make many students who have transient or minor conditions qualified to use the public funds for private education. It also includes siblings of any student who meets the broad definition of ‘qualified student.'”

The bill defines a “qualified student” as a ‘child with a disability’ under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act … [or] as having a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 … A child who is residing with an approved permanent placement following termination of the parent-child legal relationship … a child who is the sibling of a current or previous recipient of funds from the Montana special needs education savings account; or … a child of a parent or with a guardian who is a member of the armed forces of the United States and is on active duty or who was killed in the line of duty while a member of the armed forces of the United States.”

Read the description above and try to figure out which of those children don’t deserve a chance at a better education than they’re getting now. Bullock refuses to say.

Then there is the tax credit scholarship program, which quietly passed into law in early May after 10 days in which Bullock neither vetoed nor signed Senate Bill 410. The bill passed into law without Bullock’s signature, making Montana the 28th state to enact tax credit scholarship legislation.

It’s a victory worth celebrating, but it’s a very limited achievement. The new law creates a pilot program providing income-tax credits for donations of up to $150, well below the numbers allowed in other states. Parents can use the scholarships created for private K–12 education or “innovative educational programs” at traditional public schools. Scholarship organizations will not receive state funding, and students may not receive scholarships exceeding 50 percent of the average state per-pupil funding. There will be a $3 million cap on total tax credits allowed in the first year of the program, with potential for growth in the following years.

Once the bill passed on April 28 with bipartisan support, Bullock sent out a press statement saying, “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. Because SB 410 does not divert or reduce state funding for public schools, I am deferring to the legislature and allowing the bill to become law.”

A rough translation: Even though this school choice legislation would not harm or reduce funding for traditional public schools and even though it will help children in need, I won’t sign it.

Montana students tend to receive less-than-terrible scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, but that does not mean state legislators can call it a day regarding education policy. People want more choice in education across the country, and Montanans agree.

A 2012 poll by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found a majority of Montanans support school choice, not only for families with special-needs children but across the board. The study states, “Six of 10 voters (63%) say they agree with the statement that ‘school vouchers or scholarships should be available to all families, regardless of incomes and special needs.'”

Similarly, a national poll by Beck Research released in January 2015 indicated close to 70 percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Democrats, support school choice.

Bullock’s disdain for school choice goes against his constituents’ wishes, and his stance is detrimental to many students in Montana. Those children do not have time to waste waiting for him to make school choice and educational opportunities a part of his agenda.