HELENA – Bozeman businessman Greg Gianforte and his wife, Susan, pledged Tuesday to donate $4.6 million to provide hundreds of scholarships to low- and moderate-income Montana children to attend private K-12 schools of their choice here over the next four years.

Gianforte, founder and former CEO of RightNow Technologies Inc. of Bozeman, and his wife made a four-year pledge to ACE Scholarship, a Colorado nonprofit group that has provided partial tuition scholarships there for a dozen years. The group will begin providing scholarships in Montana this fall.

The partial scholarships in Montana provide up to 500 kids with $2,000 a year for K-8 grade students, and $3,000 annually for grades 9-12. The scholarships will be need-based and available at 35 private schools and more as they are added. A family of four – two parents and two children – with an annual income of $40,000 or less would be eligible for the scholarships.

Details about the program may be found here at www.acescholarships.org/apply.

Gianforte made the announcement at the Helena Christian School, a nondenominational Christian school that has 191 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Having run a business here in the state, we saw how important a good education is,” Gianforte said in an interview. “Montana is one of only a couple states in the country with no school choice legislation. There’s no charter schools, there’s no vouchers, there’s no tax-credit scholarships.”

They began looking at private school options in Montana, but found they were only open to “people of means,” he said.

He cited a survey of 1,200 Montana voters done in 2008 for the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice of Indianapolis that showed only 10 percent of those polled would choose to send their kids to public schools rather than send them to private, charter or virtual schools or home-school them.

Gianforte said nearly 20 percent of Montana public school freshmen won’t graduate from high school and only 29 percent of Montana college-bound public high school graduates who take the ACT test are proficient in all four content areas. Thirty-eight percent of college freshmen in Montana require remedial work and 45 percent of Montana college students graduate within six years of their freshman year.

Montana has some dedicated people in the public education system, he said, “but it’s not producing the outcome we want.”

“The reality is being a business guy, what my wife and I realized is there is no system where a monopoly produces the best result,” he said, “and yet private school is not a choice for most families in the state for low and moderate income.”

He said he believes the scholarships will open doors at private schools for low- and moderate-income students that would have never been able to attend them otherwise.

“It’s more that one size does not fit all, and choice is required,” Gianforte said. “I’m sure there are kids that do well in public schools, but private schools offer an option, and being a business guy, I think competition good.”

In states that allow school choice, Gianforte said both academic performance and funding per student rise at public schools rise.

Asked why he isn’t working instead on improving public schools, Gianforte said, “I’m sure there’s people working on that. That’s not what we’ve chosen to do.”

In response, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said Montanans have plenty to be proud of with their public schools.

“Our public schools continue to outperform the nation on nearly every educational measure there is, and where we have challenges, we are confronting them,” Juneau told the Missoulian State Bureau.

She said her office is addressing the dropout challenge by engaging entire communities in local Graduation Matters initiatives to improve graduation rates. Juneau said English and math standards have been raised here to ensure that students graduate with the skills needed to take the next steps in their lives, including college.

“Every student who walks through a public school’s doors has the opportunity to learn and succeed,” she said. “We’ll continue to work with businesses, schools, families and community leaders to ensure our public schools continue to provide a quality education.”

The ACE Montana Advisory Board includes former Gov. Judy Martz of Butte, former Montana State University President Geoff Gamble and former Board of Regents Chairman Steve Barrett of Bozeman and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett, among others.

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