A setback for school choice in Montana

Amelia Hamilton
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Dec 17, 2015 5:12 PM

A decision Wednesday is a significant setback for school choice in Montana.

Montana uses a tax credit school choice program in which tax-deductible donations of up to $150 can go toward scholarship funds. Families awarded scholarships can then determine where they wish to send their children. The question of legality comes into play when families decide to pursue faith-based schooling, as the state doesn’t allow public funds to be used for religious institutions or schools. As the money goes to the families, however, and the families determine how best to use it, the argument is that it’s no longer public money. The Department of Revenue decided, on a vote that closely followed party lines, that religious schools must be excluded from the program.

“That just seems very clear to us,” Department of Revenue Director Mike Kadas told The Billings Gazette. “(But) I fully expect the issue to be litigated.” In that expectation, Kadas is correct. Three women, whose children attend Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell, have already filed suit, arguing the Revenue Department doesn’t have the authority to make this ruling.

“It should be up to parents, not government bureaucrats, to decide what’s best for a child,” said attorney Erica Smith of the Institute for Justice, which is representing the women, “The state’s own Department of Justice has come out saying this is unconstitutional, yet the Department of Revenue went ahead and did it, anyway.”

The Department of Revenue will have a difficult battle on its hands. “The Attorney General believes that (excluding religious entities) would not be defensible,” Montana Solicitor General Schowengerdt wrote of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.

With educational opportunities at risk, school choice in Montana is headed to court.