As they rushed to wrap up the session last week, legislators pushed through a slew of bills that will reshape Montana for years to come — even if many of those proposals are eventually overturned in court.
One bill rooted in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision appears aimed at picking another legal fight, even as it blatantly benefits only a select few wealthy Montanans. It took a $150 tax credit for donations to school scholarships, a bone of contention as recently as year, and inflated it to a shocking $200,000.
The sheer size of the credit makes its intent unmistakable: to take public tax dollars from all Montanans, and use them to financially support private schools.
House Bill 279, carried by Rep. Seth Berglee, applies to both private and public school scholarships, but will clearly benefit private schools at the expense of public dollars. It is expected to drain $4.6 million from the general fund by Fiscal Year 2025. In other words, this bill will cost Montana taxpayers an estimated $4.6 million. And this money coming from public pockets will fund the educational choices made by private individuals. Individuals who are most certainly already wealthier than the average Montanan.
Before it was passed by the House 67-33 and sent to the governor’s desk for signing, the bill did receive some eleventh-hour amendments that will allow donors to better specify how their donations are used by public schools. The final version also places a $2 million cap on the program in 2023, with the possibility of raising that cap later on if the amount of donations approaches or exceeds the limit.
The groundwork for this maneuver was set by the 2015 Legislature, which enacted a program to provide tax credits for private schools. The state Supreme Court struck the law, saying the program could not be used to fund religious private schools. But last year the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision in a ruling hailed by school choice advocates throughout the nation, finding that the program could not treat religious schools any differently than other private schools.
Among those signing on to an amicus brief in Espinoza v. Department of Revenue were then-U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, now Governor Gianforte.
Gianforte was at one time the wealthiest member of the U.S. House and has an estimated net worth of more than $189 million, according to the most recent financial disclosures on file. He and his family, through the Gianforte Family Foundation, are also big-time, longtime supporters of a private religious school in Bozeman called the Petra Academy. Gianforte served as Petra’s chair for more than 10 years, and his foundation has donated millions to the Christian K-12 school.
Gianforte has long been a vocal supporter of school choice, but also a proven supporter of education in general. The Gianforte Family Foundation has given to scholarships and programs at Missoula College and the University of Montana, and been even more generous to Montana State University in his adopted hometown of Bozeman.
This impressive legacy of support for education deserves applause. This editorial board wholeheartedly agrees that a good education is a worthwhile investment, one that has an unparalleled ability to transform lives for the better in a lasting way. Any investment in education, whether it’s $150 or $150,000, is bound to reap rewards that go far beyond any purely monetary value.
This includes private schools, and it includes religious schools. Missoula is home to several such institutions, and not only do they provide an excellent education to their students, they provide enormous benefits that ripple through the entire community.
But it bears pointing out that private schools are built on a foundation laid by the public school system. Every child in America has a right to an education via this system, which is open to the public and overseen by a publicly elected school board. Public schools are tasked with ensuring equal access to educational opportunities within this system and demonstrating their effectiveness through testing standards.
Parents have every right to choose a private school instead. These schools can offer their own degree of transparency to parents, develop their own curricula and set their own benchmarks. They are not required to accept every child who wants to attend. They are not open to public review.
Yet HB 279 puts the public on the hook to fund someone else’s choice of school.
The problem isn’t donations to school scholarships. Again, those are a good thing whether the school is public, private, religious or otherwise.
However, a tax credit is not the same as a tax deduction. A deduction essentially lowers the taxable income rate. A dollar-for-dollar tax credit means a state government refund of 100% of the amount of the donation.
Legislators should have left well enough alone. A credit of $200,000 is just too much. It’s enough to fund a full year’s tuition for a student and then some. That high of an amount can only be claimed by very wealthy people whose individual choices should not be reimbursed with public money, and it puts too great a strain on the state’s budget, which must still fund a robust public education for all. When state funds fall short, individual communities are left to pick up the slack with higher taxes in their school districts.