Montana Kids Deserve School Choice

Jan 27, 2016 by AFP

The following article by Americans for Prosperity Montana State Director David Herbst appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on 1/27/16.

This week is very important when it comes to our children’s future as parents, teachers, and lawmakers across the nation will celebrate National School Choice Week.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much to celebrate here in Montana. In a recent study conducted by the John Locke Foundation, Montana ranked 49th—almost dead last—in terms of educational choice. This means our state places unfair restrictions on a parent’s ability to choose the best schools for their child’s needs.

But it isn’t for lack of trying.
Just recently, Bozeman Schools Superintendent Rob Watson proposed creating Montana’s first charter school. It’s a great example of thinking innovatively about how we meet the needs of students and increasing the choices available to parents.

There’s ample evidence that charter schools improve educational outcomes for students and put our children in a position to succeed. For starters, students who attend charter schools are 7 to 11 percent more likely to graduate high school. A 2015 study from Stanford University found that students who attend urban charter schools receive greater amounts of actual instruction time as well—40 extra days in math and 28 additional days of reading with only 64 percent of the funds spent by public schools.

But all too often, great ideas like this get stalled.

For example, last May, Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have created an education savings account program for special needs students. This program would have taken the funding the child would have otherwise received in public schooling and deposited it into an account that the student’s family could use instead to pay for tuition at private or alternative education programs that better suit their needs.

On top of that, our state legislators enacted a tax-credit scholarship program last year that would have provided Montana families with the opportunity to receive funds from private donors that would help pay for private school education. But almost immediately after the program passed, Montana’s Department of Revenue brought a big part of the program to a halt, declaring that parents cannot use the program’s scholarships to help send students to religious schools.

Montana families deserve better. Our children deserve an excellent education and parents deserve the opportunity to send their children to the best schools possible. Other states show what’s possible. School choice reforms across the country are breaking down barriers for students—proving that when children aren’t held back by their family’s income or zip code, they thrive.

Here in Montana, we have plenty of students who could benefit from policies like these. While high school graduations rates have improved since 2009, there’s still room for improvement as Superintendent Juneau admitted earlier this year.

Only 86 percent of students graduated high school in 2015. For low-income students, the number drops to 79.6 percent. These numbers are unacceptable.

Fortunately, we have the solution. Almost every study released to date on the impact of choice in education has found that increased choice lead to increased academic outcomes. For example, a study by the U.S. Department of Education on Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to students from low-income to attend private schools of their choice, found a 21 percentage point increase in graduation rates for participants in the scholarship program.

Increasing the choice parents have in educating their children increases high-school graduation rates, especially for the least-fortunate among us

The results are clear and attaining these incredible benefits in Montana starts with giving our students and families a choice in where to send they can send their kids to school, no matter how much money is in their bank account.

Montanans need an education system that puts children first. Accountability and improving education isn’t just about taxpayer dollars, it’s about making sure that our children get the best education possible to prepare them for happy and successful lives. School choice policies can do exactly that.

A lot of promises are made during election years. This year, Montanan’s should ask their representatives to promise support for real school choice reform. For our kids, for our future, 49th in education freedom is not good enough.

David Herbst is the Montana state director for Americans for Prosperity.