In some cases when the gavel falls signaling the end of a legislative session, it also means the work has just begun on a bill that the legislature passed. Such is the case with Senate Bill 410 from the 2015 legislative session.
You may recall Senate Bill 410 was the first school choice bill ever enacted in Montana. It allows tax credits for donations made to scholarship-granting organizations, who, in turn, provide scholarships for students to attend the school of their choice, including private, religious schools. These types of programs work well in other states at reducing the dropout rate by allowing students to find a school that fits their particular needs. After the bill became law without the governor’s signature, the Department of Revenue denied participation by religious schools, saying that would violate Montana’s Constitution. Attorney General Tim Fox said the Department’s stance was indefensible and if they got sued, they were on their own. The legislature was even polled and asked if they intended to include religious schools, and they said, “yes.”
At that point, the Department of Revenue refused to back down and lawsuits were filed in both State and Federal court. It appears the educational establishment and the teachers’ union may have been too smart by half. They honestly believe these types of programs were barred by the Montana Constitution. Their hope was to get this law nullified and, thereby, deliver a death blow to any future school choice efforts in our state. The problem is they chose the wrong bill. This law has already been litigated in a similar case out of Arizona, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where our side won.
This case is currently before the District Court in Kalispell, and in a preliminary ruling last April, the court granted our side’s motion for an injunction that stopped the Department from enforcing its rule, which was good, but the real story was the wording of the decision. We won what could only be described as a “resounding victory.” The judge even went beyond the evidence presented to him and pointed to other evidence that shows that the law is Constitutional. As expected, the Department appealed, and that set the stage for a full trial that took place earlier this week. Of course, nothing is for certain and judges are hard to predict, but from our perspective, the hearing went well. The judge asked very pointed questions that at times left the Department of Revenue’s lawyers standing there with that “deer-in-the-headlights” look. The attorney for our side has litigated these types of cases for decades, including the Supreme Court case that I mentioned earlier. He calmly answered every one of the judge’s questions, and in the end, we left feeling hopeful.
Every time school choice is tried in a new state, the education establishment and the teachers’ union fight to stop it. It’s not about the kids, it’s about money and power, and they’re willing to give up neither. The good news is that lawsuits have been filed in 46 states to stop school choice, and we now HAVE school choice in all 46 of those states. Montana will soon become the 47th, because every child deserves to find their perfect educational fit.