Caven Wade

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – Gov. Greg Gianforte made it clear in his second State of the State address that Montana’s 68th Legislature should focus on giving families the ability to be more involved in the decisions that affect their child's education.

Too often throughout our country, we’ve seen education bureaucrats fighting to keep parents out of their kid’s education. Let’s be clear – government should never stand between parents and their kid’s education,” Gianforte said. “Every parent knows each child is unique. Let’s ensure each child’s education best meets his or her individual needs.”

The governor told the Legislature that he was looking for change in the education system, and this set the stage for House Majority Leader, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, to introduce House Bill 393, which aims to shake up special education funding across the state and give parents more freedom on education for children with disabilities.

The bill adds to a long list of bills going through the Legislature that aim to reform education, and provide more personalized learning throughout the state. Other bills include House Bill 396 from Rep. Naarah Hastings, R-Billings, which would allow non-public school students to attend classes on a part-time basis, and Sen. Shannon O’Brien’s, D-Missoula, Senate Bill 8, which would add definitions to proficiency-based learning to guide school employees when using the program.

Vinton’s bill would create the Students with Special Needs Equal Opportunity Act, and set up a special needs savings account program that would allow the state superintendent of public instruction to reimburse fees that families pay for educational resources that a student with disabilities would use such as private school tuition, school supplies, educational therapies, and more.

“All students are different and unique, and their needs are similarly unique. Families need flexibility in accessing the best and most appropriate educational setting for their child,” Vinton said.

However, opponents of the bill say that it is unconstitutional, and the financial ripple effects could be catastrophic to public school funding.

SB 393 would require that the public school that a special needs student used to attend pay into the special education savings account. Then, the family of that student would apply for money in the savings account, and that amount would be allocated to the family to pay for education outside of the public school system.. Families would qualify for the program by relinquishing their child's ability to be educated by a local public school, and make sure that a student successfully enrolls in a private educational center that is not run by the state. 

The funds would be managed by the Office of Public Instruction, where 95% of payments from school districts would go to family reimbursement, and the remaining 5% would be paid to OPI for administration fees.

Vinton said that this would be an education savings account that the legislature already has the power to set up, and allows parents to get the necessary funding to give their children the resources to reach their full academic potential. She said these funds are necessary to help families set up a quality education for their child, while also giving resources to public schools.

Elsie Arntzen, the Montana State Superintendent, was one of the four supporters of the bill saying it is family friendly, student friendly, and school friendly.

“We are looking at personalized learning, and I know that word has been from one end of the Capitol to another. This is exactly this bill,” Arntzen said. “Please let's think of our children, let's think of their great abilities to further our great state.”

Dylan Klapmeier, the governor's education adviser, also testified in support of the bill and echoed what the governor shared at his State of the State address.

Klapmeier said the governor's office worked with Vinton on the bill during the interim.

He said the bill is set up very efficiently and makes sure that only the accounts are being accessed by families that actually need the funding and reimbursements from the public school district.

“We know each child is unique and deserves access to the best education possible to meet his or her individual needs, and for most special education students that is their school district, it works well for them. But for those students who are looking for a different opportunity, and need and opportunity, right now especially lower income parents are limited on accessing those alternative education programs,” Klapmeier said.

Klapmeier said there are about 21,000 special needs students in the state, and that about $13,000 is spent on each of those students per year on the local, state, and federal level. He said this bill would give between $5,000 to $6,000 for elementary students, and between $6,400 to $8,000 per high school student.

He said at least 10 other states already have education savings account programs set up for special needs students.

Sara Novak, a former special education teacher and former lawmaker who now works as a special education director for Great Divide Education Services, an education cooperative, opposed the bill, saying that federal legislation is inflexible when it comes to special education funding, and that it will trump state legislation. 

She said while she appreciates the intentions of the bill, she has concerns that the rural nature of the state is what hinders opportunities for all students across the state. She said kids in more urban areas would be the ones who really benefit from this bill, because there are private schools and outside services located there, whereas, rural areas don’t have those same opportunities.

Novak also said that this could have negative impacts on public schools resources and funding.

“Anytime you lose students you lose spending, whether they’re special ed or gen ed students, this is unique because even though the child isn’t enrolled they take that ANB calculation, and the school just becomes a flow through system,” Novak said. 

Novak said schools would also be required to pay for certain services and resources even if a student is no longer at the school. She also said if families opt into these funds they would be losing a lot of federal and state government help through individual education plans, or IEPs and federally mandated free appropriate public education, or FAPE.

“I mean that gets kind of sketchy, it’s a simple fact that when you leave the public school you no longer have an IEP. So you don’t have access to those services, and you lose any protections around that essentially,” Novak said. “I don’t know that it’s legit to just have the state sign off on this.”

Several of the six opponents also questioned the financial burden of this bill. 

Tal Goldin, supervising attorney for education employment and benefits with Disability Montana, said if all 21,000 special education students in the state that would qualify accessed this service it would blow past the projected fiscal note, and would cost the public schools more than $150 million annually.

Goldin also raised concerns about public schools essentially directly funding private schools and OPI being paid a percentage of this money.

“For every 100 students that participate in this ESA, almost $700,000 annually is redistributed from school district funds to private institutions and over $35,000 per 100 students would be transferred to OPI,” Goldin said.

Debra Silk, associate executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said that the bill has constitutional problems because there cannot be an appropriation made for religious, charitable, industrial, educational, benevolent purposes to any private individual, private association or private corporation not under control of the state. 

“The bill does provide for direct reimbursement to parents, so I do think that there are constitutional problems with that bill,” Silk said.

All opponents to the bill shared sentiments that the constitution legitimacy of this bill would be questioned if it were passed through the legislature.

The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill.