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Disability Rights Advocates, Quality Ed Coalition seek to enjoin harmful bill

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News from Upper Seven Law

HELENA — On April 22, 2024, the Montana Quality Education Coalition and Disability Rights Montana filed a motion to stop the state from giving already scarce public-school money to private individuals and private school vendors.

During the last legislative session, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 393 (“HB 393”) as part of a slate of new laws intended to privatize education.  HB 393 establishes a voucher scheme of private education savings accounts (“ESAs”) that students with disabilities may access only after waiving fundamental rights to a free appropriate public education under federal law and the quality education that the Montana Constitution guarantees all children in Montana.

“HB 393 fails students with disabilities,” said Tal Goldin, Disability Rights Montana’s Director of Advocacy.  “It gives no protection or certainty to students who leave public school to access their ESAs, and it depletes the funds available to educate students who remain in public schools.  We cannot support it.”

HB 393 authorizes the Superintendent of Public Instruction to take money from local school district accounts and hold it in state-controlled accounts before distributing it to private individuals who buy private educational resources.  The money can be spent on everything from college and private school tuition to SAT test prep to anything the Superintendent deems an appropriate educational expense.  Eligible students may take between $6,000 and $8,000 per year, damaging local schools and failing to provide students with disabilities with enough funding to receive an adequate, let alone quality, education.

“Allowing school privatization activists to take hard-earned money from our communities to give to unaccountable private vendors through vouchers is unconstitutional,” said Doug Reisig, Montana Quality Education Coalition’s executive director.  “We stand with our schools and Montana children against this assault on public education.”

The problems with HB 393 are extensive.  First, it likely will increase state and local taxes.  Second, it takes local public school money and gives it to private vendors without oversight.  Third, by taking money away from community schools, it makes providing a quality public education impossible, especially in rural districts.  Fourth, it takes control and supervision over basic funding decisions away from local boards of trustees.

“Free, quality public education is a constitutional guarantee in Montana,” said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, Upper Seven Law’s executive director and attorney for the plaintiffs.  “This bill not only violates that guarantee, but also fails to follow even basic constitutional funding rules.  And it usurps local control over school finances.  HB 393 is expensive, irresponsible, and unconstitutional.”

The costs will be astronomical.  The State’s own Legislative Services Division warned in HB 393’s fiscal note that if every known eligible student accessed this program, public school districts could lose $140 million.  The bill places no cap on the amount of money or number of students who could participate.


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