This last week I joined with parents and education freedom advocates across Montana in celebrating National School Choice Week — recognizing a growing movement to transform public education to focus on students and empower parents with more control over their child’s education.
Funding Students Instead Of Systems
"Whatever form it takes, what the education freedom movement believes is simple: let’s transform public education to fund students, not systems."
At the core of the education freedom movement is the belief that every student is a unique individual capable of amazing things. This belief drives the idea that one education does not fit all students. The problem is that state education funding historically supports only one type of education system —public schools. We’ve essentially set public education up for failure: funding a one-size-fits-all public school system with the impossible task of meeting the diverse learning needs of all students, in all places, simultaneously. And when this one-size-fits-all system fails students, it’s only the wealthy or well-connected families who are able to opt out while disadvantaged students get left behind.
The goal of the education freedom movement is to transform the way we think about government support for education for the 21st Century. Instead of forcing every kid into the same box for education, education freedom advocates argue that public funds should be focused on empowering families and students directly so they can choose what education system works best for them. Public education dollars should follow all students wherever they choose to receive an education — be it a public school, charter school, private school or a homeschooling option.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s safe to say that education freedom is having a moment here in Montana.
HB203, introduced by Representative Dave Bedey, is the latest education freedom legislation to make its debut. HB203 expands the ability of students to attend a public school outside the district where they live, increasing options and empowering parents to make decisions about their child’s education. HB203 also creates a process for public education funding to follow the student from one school district to the other, ensuring that parents won’t have to foot the cost of choosing another public school. HB203 received wide support and only one soft opponent, indicating that public school choice as a form of education freedom is quite popular.
HB294 from Representative Sue Vinton is another bill brought this legislative session to expand a popular Montana education freedom program: tax credit scholarships. Montana’s education tax credit program was maxed out completely within a matter of minutes in 2022, with generous donors eager to support providing students more diverse opportunities and choice in both public and private schools. HB294 aims to increase these funding caps so that more schools, parents and students have access to these programs.
A group of passionate and motivated Montana parents are also making a push for public charter schools this year. Public charter schools are specialized public schools that allow more flexibility for innovative educational curriculums focused on particular student needs. Surprisingly, Montana is one of the last five states in the country that does not allow for public charter schools.
These Montana proposals come on the heels of big reforms in other states like Iowa’s Students First Act, which was just signed into law this week. This Iowa reform creates a universal scholarship program for all students, allowing parents to direct their student’s share of public education dollars to pay for a variety of educational options, such as private or public school tuition, tutoring, special learning programs etc.
Whatever form it takes, what the education freedom movement believes is simple: let’s transform public education to fund students, not systems.
This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.