Montanans Want Choice

Published January 1, 2009

A new survey has raised awareness of public support for school choice in Montana—but lawmakers say legislative success is not likely to come in the near future.

The October 2008 survey, sponsored by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national advocacy group based in Indianapolis, found widespread support for a variety of schooling options. Currently, Montana parents have very limited options: They are permitted to send their children only to their assigned neighborhood school, or they may homeschool or pay full tuition for a private education while simultaneously paying taxes to support public schools.

“People are in favor of looking for new and exciting ways to educate children,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation.

Major Disconnect

When given the hypothetical free choice for the best educational setting for their child, only one in 10 respondents selected a regular public school. According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, more than 145,000 students were enrolled in public school in 2005, with only about 12,000 in either private schools or homeschools.

“There is a disconnect between private preferences and public reality,” said Paul DiPerna, the Friedman Foundation’s director of partner services and author of the survey. “The implication is that there are institutional and structural barriers that inhibit parents from choosing the schools they want.”

According to the survey, private schools were the most popular choice, with 38 percent choosing them. About half of those parents said they would prefer to send their children to a nonreligious school; an overwhelming majority of Montana’s private schools are sectarian. Other widespread selections were public charter schools (28 percent) and homeschooling (18 percent). Results were largely consistent among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

“School choice has always been held up as a partisan issue in Montana,” Laszloffy said. “When you look at the results of the poll, it’s clearly nonpartisan.”

Consistent Support

One key lawmaker also was impressed by the very similar levels of support across different regions of the state.

“It’s not just a pocket area where there are good schools or proficient schools,” said state Rep. Elsie Arntzen (R-Billings), an elementary school teacher and member of the House Education Committee. “It’s all across the state that people are trying to look at different models.”

The choice reform most favored by Montanans is a tax-credit scholarship system. Sixty-four percent of respondents favor giving credits to individual and corporate taxpayers who donate to nonprofit private school scholarship organizations.

Far more respondents favored making tax-credit scholarships available to all families (63 percent) than wanted them targeted to those with financial need (45 percent). By comparison, 55 percent support introducing public charter schools to the state.

DiPerna said Montana has shown the most support for tax credits in any state the foundation has surveyed so far.

Offensive Strategy

After devoting much effort in recent legislative sessions to defending homeschooling freedoms, state Sen. Dan McGee (R-Laurel) believes it’s time to adopt an offensive strategy in education reform. He favors introducing either tax credit or public charter school legislation in 2009.

“I think it’s something that must be done, and it should be done in this session,” McGee said.

If a school choice bill were to pass Montana’s Senate, an evenly divided House would make it difficult to pass such a contentious issue over partisan objections, McGee noted. He also pointed out a veto would be nearly certain from Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), a union ally.

“But a statement needs to be made,” McGee said.

Tired Arguments

Laszloffy said the time has come to expand parents’ options.

“A lot of the arguments against school choice that have been raised don’t hold up anymore,” Laszloffy said. “It becomes harder for the other side to say that it will hurt public schools.”

Sixty-four percent of Montana respondents said they don’t fear public schools will close as a result of enacting tax credits.

“Montanans think improvement could come from a tax-credit scholarship that could lift all boats,” DiPerna said. “The other side isn’t really going to be able to go too far, because people won’t believe it. Montanans believe this is for the good of all students.”

Broad Appeal

Laszloffy agrees the state’s school choice supporters should ground their case in broad appeal as they look to rally behind a specific proposal.

“The premise we begin with is: Do no harm,” Laszloffy said. “We don’t want to strengthen homeschools or private schools at the expense of public schools.”

As a related strategy, Arntzen said her constituents support not only expanding choices but also raising expectations.

“People want to see accountability in our education system,” Arntzen said. “As a teacher, I have no problem with that accountability.”

Montana is the seventh state Friedman has surveyed using its current model. The results of its most recent survey, in Vermont, were scheduled for December 2008 release and were not available at press time.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

“Montana’s Opinion on K-12 Education and School Choice,” by Paul DiPerna, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, October 14, 2008: