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It’s cruel – and poor policy – to block special needs kids from educational opportunities

Updated: Mar 12

Special needs families in Montana had reason to be excited in 2023, as lawmakers advanced choice opportunities for the children who need it most. The arrival of 2024, however, put a mean-spirited damper on the celebration.

 

Montana House Bill 393 would allow parents of a student with a disability the chance to have access to an Education Savings Account or “ESA.” ESA’s are extremely popular with parents and are common in many states around the nation. Polling has shown overwhelming support across party lines and demographics.


The ESA in HB 393 allows parents who choose to sign up to access roughly $6,800 that can be used on education therapies, private school tuition and fees, textbooks, curriculum, tutoring, transportation, and other education-related expenses. It can be a tremendously helpful tool for parents who might not have the resources to help their child. Speech and occupational therapies alone can cost a family thousands of dollars each year – an expense many families cannot afford.

 

Put simply, if a student isn’t succeeding in the traditional classroom setting, this new program is a lifeline. And it can help alleviate pressure on a public school that may be struggling to meet a student’s needs. It is a win-win.

 

But the old-guard education establishment doesn’t see it that way. These defenders of the status quo include the Montana Quality Education Coalition, made up of public school superintendents and union leaders from across the state.

 

They’ve filed a cruel lawsuit to stop special needs kids from receiving any ESA benefit, incorrectly labeling the program a “voucher” and accusing parents who want further options of “privatizing education.”

 

This same organization also sued to prevent implementation of Montana’s new public charter schools. Their harsh assessment is that the only schooling option should be their system, regardless of whether it works for the student.

 

They’ve attempted to sully the reputation of Representative Sue Vinton, a special needs mother herself who led the charge to provide more options.

 

“The arrogance and the lack of respect by some of the opponents – I would never presume to tell someone else how they should educate their child, and that’s what this bill does, it gives each family that choice, that opportunity to choose the best path forward,” Senator Vinton rightfully said.


In their lawsuit to stop public charter schools, opponents tried to claim the schools were unconstitutional. A Montana district court judge disagreed.

 

Opponents tried to say money was being incorrectly diverted from traditional public schools. The court disagreed.

 

Now, in their latest lawsuit against special needs kids, opponents admit that the state Constitution does “provide such… educational programs as it deems desirable,” but say their needs as a “system” come first.

 

The bottom line for any court to consider is whether the state has a responsibility to fund the education of children, or the continuation of a system. Education choice is popular among parents because it works to improve outcomes. In fact, a review of more than 180 empirical studies on various education choice programs shows 82% had a positive impact.

 

The Peabody Journal of Education wrote “a review of the empirical research on private school choice finds evidence that private school choice delivers some benefits to participating students—particularly in the area of educational attainment—and tends to help, albeit to a limited degree, the achievement of students who remain in public schools."​

 

When activists in West Virginia sued to stop the state’s new education choice plan, West Virginia’s Supreme Court upheld the program saying that "The [state] Constitution allows the Legislature to do both of these things" – provide a thorough, quality public school system and a plan to help expand choice options for parents.

 

Education opportunity is one of the greatest civil rights issues of our time. The future of the country is eager for change, whether the old-guard education establishment likes it or not. Those who ignore their plea for innovation and options risk the judgment of history.

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