The Montana House Thursday advanced a bill that would let special needs students attend private schools using public education dollars.
Under House Bill 329, public money tied to a special needs child would go into a savings account to reimburse parents on private education costs.
Billings Republican Rep. Sue Vinton said the program would allow parents to tailor their children’s education using options not available at public schools.
“Families need flexibility in nonpandemic times. Challenges our students face right now demand even more flexibility, especially families with students with special needs who have been greatly impacted by the loss of face-to-face learning,” Vinton says.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte requested the bill. GOP legislative leaders signaled they would prioritize school choice proposals ahead of the session, after former Democratic governors vetoed earlier bills. That includes one similar to HB 329.
It passed second reading in the House largely along party lines, and will likely move to the Senate after another vote Friday.
Democratic Rep. Moffie Funk of Helena worried the program would siphon significant money from public school districts, impacting education for all students.
Legislative staff estimate more than 23,000 children would be eligible for a savings account, though fewer than 100 students would be expected to participate.
Democratic Rep. Sara Novak, a special education professional, cited legislative analysis saying the bill could run afoul of federal law intended to protect students with disabilities.
“The reality is that the local public schools retain a large amount of responsibility under federal law, and this responsibility can’t be waived,” Novak says.
Democrats worried that could subject the state to costly litigation.
The legislative analysis also says the program would violate a section of the Montana Constitution preventing public dollars from going to private religious schools.
Whitefish Republican Rep. John Fuller said the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the so-called Blaine Amendment last year when it ruled that Montana discriminated against religious schools by leaving them out of a tax credit program supporting school choice.