UPDATED: Special needs ‘school choice’ bill tabled, chair said had too many issues

Sen. Salomon: ‘Where is the follow up?’ ‘What happens to this student?’

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A bill that would lend taxpayer support to special needs students outside public schools — and one that’s a priority for Gov. Greg Gianforte — was tabled Wednesday in the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee.

However, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said she hopes the Senate still will take the opportunity to consider the legislation. Vinton, who is sponsoring House Bill 329, said many special needs students have their needs met in public schools, but not all of them do.

She believes HB329 would fill the gap.

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings (Provided by the Montana Legislature).

“It’s my hope that we can continue to bring it forward to carry on the conversation to provide the very best opportunities and options for families and students,” Vinton said in a phone call Wednesday following the committee meeting.

With no discussion on the bill, the committee voted 6-4 to table it. Republican Sens. Dan Salomon of Ronan and Russ Tempel of Chester joined Democrats to set the legislation aside.

In a phone call Thursday, Sen. Salomon said the bill had a lot of issues that needed to be dealt with, and the committee ran out of time.

For one thing, Chair Salomon said the bill would let parents take public funding from the previous year away from the schools and redirect the child and the money, and it would do so with no follow up.

“Somebody is in charge of the education of this student. Where is the follow up? … What happens to this student? This is about their future.”

Generally, he said the bill had holes that needed to be addressed.

“There’s just a lot of unanswered questions about how it would work and the process,” Salomon said. “At the end of the day, this should be about the student’s education, and how do we make sure that happens. There’s just nothing literally in there about that.”

The legislation is among a series of “school choice” bills the Montana Legislature has taken up this session. The Republican governor’s policy director Glenn Oppel had described the special needs bill in correspondence about drafting the measure as one that was important to Gianforte.

(The Montana Office of Legislative Information Services provides the public, including the media, with documents related to the evolution of a bill, including emails and draft versions.)

Representatives from public K12 groups have spoken out against the “school choice” bills, arguing they siphon tax dollars out of public schools into the private system and circumvent the Constitutional authority of the Board of Public Education and local trustees.

Vinton, who served on her local school board for 12 years and is in her third term on the House Education Committee, said Gov. Gianforte approached her to carry the bill.

“So I’m a proponent of public education, but I’m also a proponent of the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to education, and in particular for students with special needs,” Vinton said.

She said there are some students — a small minority — who may benefit from alternative modes of education, and the bill is designed to address their needs. (Vinton earlier voted in the House Education Committee against a school choice bill K12 representatives considered one of the most harmful, House Bill 633, to create charter schools outside the public school system.)

Wednesday, Vinton explained the reason she believes HB329 would affect only a sliver of the elementary school special needs population.

First, she believes many, many of those students have their needs met in the public schools. Secondly, she said the bill would only work if a different option is available for parents — and Montana doesn’t offer many alternatives.

“I think it would be a very small number of students who would meet both of those criteria,” Vinton said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”