Alex Sakariassen

(MTFP) Montana’s Office of Public Instruction is preparing this winter for the implementation of a new program that will make public education funds directly available to the families of students with special needs.

With the Legislature’s passage last year of House Bill 393, Montana is set to become one of 13 states where parents can apply for government reimbursement for certain educational services obtained outside the public school system. The restrictions placed on such reimbursement programs — known as “education savings accounts” — vary from state to state. Programs in Arizona and Florida are nearly universal, while Montana’s education savings accounts can only be used for services related to special education.

OPI’s latest step in enacting HB 393 came this Tuesday as it convened a 15-member steering committee to provide input ahead of the bill’s effective date of July 1, 2024. The agency solicited applications for the committee in November, and state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen announced her final selections last month. The lineup featured parents, teachers and special education providers from across the state, among them former Republican legislator Brad Tschida, former Democratic Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss and Alba Pimentel, president of the Yellowstone chapter of the national parental rights group Moms for Liberty.

HB 393 last session became a flashpoint for debate over the broader goals of the school choice movement. The positions held by supporters and opponents once more bubbled to the surface Tuesday as the committee’s members, participating virtually, introduced themselves. Pimentel reiterated her past endorsement of the new law, and Tschida applauded the savings accounts as a way to put parent access and student needs first. Several members, including Katherine Walter of White Sulphur Springs, referenced their own experiences as parents of children with disabilities as a key motivating factor for joining the committee.

“I want to help in any way possible to make it easier for the parents of special needs children to get their kids the education that they need,” Walter said, “because it doesn’t always fit in the same box and it doesn’t always fit in the public setting.”

Others on the committee articulated a long-held apprehension that savings accounts effectively redirect public education funding to the private sector. Sarah Whitney, a Great Falls parent, said she was “very concerned” about oversight of the new program. Curtiss echoed those concerns.

“My interest is to make sure that this isn’t just a transfer of public dollars into private schools,” Curtiss said of her role on the committee, adding that she also intends to ensure that Individualized Education Plans — federally mandated documents developed for each student with special needs in the U.S. — serve as a primary guide in HB 393’s implementation.

How much state funding is redirected to the education savings account program will ultimately depend on the number of students who participate. But a fiscal note prepared for HB 393 last spring estimated that the maximum amount would be roughly $140 million a year over the next biennium (if only 100 students participated, the fiscal note’s estimate was around $650,000 annually). Funding for the savings accounts would be returned to OPI by the school district in which a participating student resides.

At a separate meeting Tuesday, state lawmakers got an updated look at the fiscal picture associated with HB 393. OPI Chief Financial Officer Jay Phillips presented the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee with a spreadsheet containing a district-by-district breakdown of the per-student amounts that would be redirected to the savings account program. The amounts ranged between $5,000 and $8,000 and included the per-pupil payments a district would receive from the state for those individual students. Phillips also noted for lawmakers that OPI intends to hire one full-time staffer to run the program and will put together “parent packets” for distribution to Montana families that wish to apply for accounts starting this fall.

The steering committee did receive presentations this week from three private software companies that specialize in education savings account platforms: Student First Technologies, Class Wallet and Odyssey. However, in an email to Montana Free Press Wednesday, OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary said the agency plans to administer the education savings account program on its own for the time being.

“There is no plan to use an outside vendor at this time,” O’Leary wrote. “These presentations were helpful for the ESA Steering Committee to understand different types of platforms that are available in the market should the OPI need one in the future.”

This story was first published by Montana Free Press.