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Many questions, few answers about controversial education bill

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, along with Office of Public Instruction staff, held a public forum via Zoom Wednesday on a bill that will allow public funds to be used to send special-needs students to private schools.

The bill, House Bill 393, the Students with Special Needs Equal Opportunity Act, was passed this year by a Republican supermajority and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte despite almost universal condemnation by Democrats and public school groups.

Arntzen and fellow supporters of the bill have said that it will provide resources to children with disabilities and special needs, but the Montana Quality Education Coalition said its partners have opposed the bill, along with the Montana School Boards Association, Montana Federation of Public Employees, School Administrators of Montana, Montana Rural Education Association, Montana Association of School Business Officials as well as 98 school districts in the state.

A release from Montanans Organized for Education reminding people about the forum and inviting them to attend and ask questions at the forum said the bill was just as threatening to public education as recent attempts to divert public support to charter schools at the expense of public schools.

"(This is) a clever title that masks the true intent: divert public funds from our public schools and channel them to private, often out-of-state, often online, rarely accountable entities," the release said.

The release laid out a number of talking points the organization hoped to bring up, including unconstitutionality, a lack of regulation, lack of clarity and the diversion of funding from public schools.

Despite this there were no voices of direct opposition who spoke at the forum, and the chat was largely supportive or asking clarifying questions.

During the forum, Arntsen again praised the "unique" bill saying it is for the benefit of children around the state as well as other stakeholders.

"It's about parents, it's about schools, but most importantly it's about our children," she said.

The meeting mostly consisted of OPI Chief Legal Counsel Rob Stutz going through the bill's language and attempting to answer clarifying questions from the audience.

The bill, Stutz said, is in effect this year but will not apply to the coming school year so districts and the state have a chance to prepare for the transition.

He said the bill falls within the prerogative of the Montana Legislature under the state's constitution.

He said the bill will not automatically transfer funds to parents and guardians, but instead will reimburse them for non-public school services they use to educate their special-needs children.

"This is not a slush fund," he said.

Over the course of the meeting Arntzen interjected several times, touting her office's commitment to transparency and integrity when considering how to implement this program.

To qualify for use of this program, Stutz said, a student must be between five and 19 years old, eligible for public school, but not enrolled in public school.

He said they also cannot be enrolled in any schools operated by the Montana Department of Corrections and/or the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.

Stutz said parents and guardians will need to sign a contract with the superintendent of public instruction which will stipulate what kind of expenses are eligible for reimbursement and the consequences for misuse of the program.

Under the bill, he said, OPI is obligated to ensure the integrity of the program and instances of misuse, depending on the circumstance, may warrant the matter be investigated by the Montana Attorney General's Office.

Under the program non-public schools would need to send quarterly reports to OPI on the services they are offering to program recipients, but Arntzen said she wanted to be clear that this does not mean that the state will be imposing new regulations on these non-public schools.

During the meeting, several people asked questions about the language of the bill and what it means, but few got clear answers.

One person asked if OPI would be directly administering this program or would be contracting it out, and Stutz and Arntzen said they don't know yet.

"This is all new," Arntzen said.

Others asked if homeschool activities qualify for reimbursement, with one saying the bill's language seems to imply they don't.

Again, neither Stutz nor Arntzen had a clear answer, saying that such things would be hashed out when OPI starts its rule-making process for the program.

Arntzen encouraged parents to be part of that process so their voices are heard.

Others asked if children with dyslexia are covered under the program.

Stutz didn't say yes or no directly, but said to qualify for the program students need to have a disability classified under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Dyslexia is classified as a "specific learning disability" under the act.

At the end of the meeting Arntzen said her office and this bill are there to invigorate the lives of children across the state and thanked everyone for sharing their perspectives, and asked that everyone take a moment to honor the state's teachers for their work.


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