Sex Ed Controversy Drives Lawmaker’s School Choice Bill

Posted on February 17, 2011

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By MIRANDA DALPIAZ

For nearly a decade, Helena-area legislator Dave Lewis was content to vote down bills giving Montanans tax breaks to support private schools. Not anymore.

This session, Sen. Lewis is sponsoring one of several Republican proposals to boost support for private schools.

He says his change of heart came last summer when Helena’s school board revised its curriculum for sex education over the  objections of parents who argued that it was their duty, not the government’s, to teach their children about sex.

“Several hundred parents protested, and they really didn’t get satisfaction because the school board, in effect, said, ‘Well, you can’t take your kid out of school anyway because you can’t afford to do it,’” Lewis said recently. “I’m saying that isn’t right and they ought to have that option.”

Lewis said the time is ripe to give parents more choice about where their children go to school. More choices would also benefit children who may not fit well in the public education setting, he added.

“I voted against (school choice) for the last ten years,” he said. “I was just driven to go back to take a look … and change my mind based on what I thought was real arrogance on the part of the Helena school board.”

Lewis’ Senate Bill 282 would grant tax credits to individuals or corporations that contribute to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. Students could apply for these scholarships to help pay for tuition to attend non-public schools.

The bill limits the total amount of such tax credits at $3.5 million for 2011. An accompanying fiscal note predicts the amount would grow.

The battle lines over the bill are clear. Private schools supported the idea, saying they provide a good educational return on the investment. But public schools officials argue that it siphons away tax dollars that might otherwise have been spent on them.

The measure’s supporters say Montana parents want more choices about where to send their children to school.  Pat Haggarty, superintendent of Catholic schools in western Montana, said parents of moderate means deserve to have that choice, too.

“(The bill) is helping those who have less resources because right now the only people who have school choice in Montana are those who can afford it,” he said.

Lewis was careful to say that his bill does not appropriate public money for non-public schools, a practice banned under Montana’s constitution.  But public school officials say the effect is the same. If the bill passes, it’s sure to wind up in court, they added.

Eric Feaver, president of Montana’s largest teachers union, the MEA-MFT, said that Lewis bill is blatantly unconstitutional. He also said it short-changes the state’s financially strapped public schools.

“I think that Senator Lewis is wasting the taxpayers’ money and a lot of political time and energy to promote a bill that does not conform with the Montana capacity to pay (or) with the religious circumstances articulated in our constitution,” Feaver said.

Another critic of the measure, Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, said it bolsters religious education at the expense of a public school system that has been a unifying force in Montana life.

“The forces behind this almost always have a religious overtone,” Hawks said. “It speaks of elitism or separation. You are either with us or against us.”

Feaver also acknowledged the debate’s religious and cultural overtones but said Lewis’ bill isn’t the answer.

“The solution is not to destroy the one institution that actually brings all God’s children together,” he said.

Lawmakers have just begun to debate the bill. If it fails, Lewis said he’s prepared to take the issue to voters in a referendum.

Lewis’ measure isn’t the only bill dealing with the school choice issue this session. Rep. James Knox, R-Billings, has sponsored House Bill 397, which would give parents or grandparents a refundable dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money they spend sending children to private schools.

Helena’s sex ed controversy also prompted a bill by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, that would allow parents to pull their children out of classes that discuss sex education.

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