It’s always fun when our people come to the Capitol. And yesterday they came by the busload to celebrate National School Choice Week; to celebrate education and the idea that every child deserves the right to find their perfect educational fit, be that public school, private school or homeschool; to celebrate the idea that parents and children together are capable of choosing an educational setting that best fits their child; and to dispel forever the notion that a one-size-fits all education system is still a good idea in the 21st Century.
School choice is an idea whose time has come. It’s a tsunami sweeping the nation, and unfortunately, Montana’s on the lagging edge of the wave. States began implementing school choice about 40 years ago. Some states, like Arizona and Florida, are far down this road. And their students are reaping the benefits. It’s time for Montana to do so, as well.
We began this effort over nine years ago with a tax credit scholarship bill. It was an uphill battle, and opponents of school choice pulled out all the stops. That first bill died on the Senate floor, but it was a start. By the next session, we had six school choice bills, all carried by powerful members of the legislature, bills to establish charter schools and tuition tax credits and tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts, all in an effort to provide a wide array of options for students and their parents. Bills passed out of committee, passed on floor votes and moved between the House and Senate. Momentum was building, and 2013 was a sea change. For the first time in Montana history, we placed a school choice bill on the governor’s desk. Unfortunately, he vetoed it. But the handwriting was on the wall. Montana would eventually join 46 other states in implementing school choice.
And in 2015, it finally happened. Senate Bill 410 was allowed to become law without the governor’s signature. It was a tax credit scholarship bill, and our opponents planned to kill it in court. The State Department of Revenue said that it would not apply to private religious schools, so lawsuits were filed, at both the state and federal levels. This exact same case has already been litigated in Arizona, and went clear to the U.S. Supreme Court, where we won. We’ll win here, too, and when we do, school choice will become a permanent piece of the educational fabric of the State of Montana.
Every year, roughly 1,500 students drop out of Montana Public Schools. In the nine years since we began this effort, over 14,000 students have failed to graduate. What about them? How would their lives be different if they had graduated? Would school choice have made a difference? Possibly. It works in other states, and it can work here, too. That’s why this movement is gaining momentum.
Yesterday’s rally saw 350 people on the front steps of the Capitol, all wearing bright yellow scarves emblazoned with “National School Choice Week.” It was just one of 21,000 similar events held across the U.S. Attendees braved the cold to hear speeches by the Speaker of the House, Americans for Prosperity, ACE Scholarships and the Montana Family Foundation. They also heard letters from U.S. Senator Steve Daines and Superintendent of Public Instruction, Elsie Arntzen. It was all-hands-on-deck for kids, and you can see the pictures on our website at montanafamily.org.