BY KRIS HANSEN
Last week the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
I attended the argument because, as a former state senator, I was primarily responsible for drafting the legislation the Court is now reviewing, I have been involved with the development of the program, and I’ve been fighting the coordinated effort to destroy it, since its passage in 2015.
Since the Supreme Court heard the case last week, there have been a number of op-eds and analyses that have been hostile toward private schools, students who attend them, and people who believe they play a valuable role in providing education to kids who may not be succeeding in other environments.
At its core, parental choice in education is about making sure every child has the chance to receive an education that works for them.
The opponents to parental choice — “school choice” — like candidate for attorney general Raph Graybill, disagree. They make the debate purely about “taking money from public schools” and “funding religious schools,” both of which are not only disingenuous, but outright lies.
Regarding what opponents have dishonestly called “an existential threat to Montana’s commitment to democratic, quality public education,” i.e. public school funding, the legislation that created a parental choice option in Montana provided a tiny tax credit to people who want to donate to scholarship organizations that provide scholarships to kids to attend any school in Montana the family chooses.
Not one dollar of public education funding was touched. In fact, in the year the bill was passed and every year since, public school funding has increased.
Regarding the falsehood that the program is funding religious schools, the program allows an individual tax credit. Individuals who donate, by law, cannot designate or direct where a student goes to school when he or she receives a scholarship. The money never goes to the state treasury. It’s awarded as a scholarship to a student whose parents then direct which school their child attends.
Many of the opponents yammer on about how “most” private schools in Montana are religious, therefore the whole program is a subterfuge for funding religion. However, private schools of all types are flourishing and the best estimate at this time is that only about 65% of Montana private schools are church-affiliated.
Montana now hosts at least one of each of the following independent, non-religious schools: Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, free schools, classical schools, day schools, special needs schools, all-girls schools, all-boys schools, and boarding schools.
Nothing, including education, is one-size-fits-all.
Mr. Graybill calls himself a “fighter,” an “advocate,” “who will stand up for Montana’s kids.” But he makes it clear he will only stand up for the kids who go to public schools. He rejects out of hand the approximate 15,000 Montana kids who go to independent schools, Christian or secular. People like Raph and his boss, who happens to be the governor, who insist on public education being a panacea, doom myriad children to fear and shame and failure because they aren’t thriving in a traditional environment. Parents inherently understand this and will choose alternatives for their kids when they need it.
A scholarship, funded by individuals who choose to send $150 to a scholarship organization instead of the taxman, can make a struggling child’s future more secure. And that, I hope, is something the United States Supreme Court will again affirm.
Kristin Hansen is a former state senator and representative from the Hi-Line and a board member of Big Sky Scholarships, a scholarship granting organization.