They Are ALL Our Children

They Are ALL Our Children

"Policy should improve the lives of citizens by increasing and upholding the individual’s freedom and dignity. The system should not be superior to the individual."

Challenging the Status Quo: 

Changes made during the 2023 Session to Montana’s enrollment laws promised to promote school choice and taxpayer equity through Open Enrollment. Parents were told they will have increased choice to a variety of district schools, school boards were told they could define their own policies, and taxpayers were assured they will only have to pay for children who physically live in their own district boundaries. Wait! What? Please reread that.

Why are taxpayers only interested in educating “their own children” when most taxpayers in districts are not even parents? Why is a child’s address linked to his worthiness to be educated? Public schools will never uphold the constitution’s promise of “equality of educational opportunity” if we continue to prioritize and restrict access to public schools solely based on residence.

A Flawed Policy: 

HB203 aimed to address two issues: parents paying out-of-pocket tuition for out-of-district transfers, and taxpayers in receiving districts having to foot the per-pupil bill. Inter-district transfers resulted in both per-pupil costs to taxpayers and tuition expenses. However, in practice, many districts did not bother to collect tuition from the families, so the cost fell solely on the receiving district’s taxpayers.

With the fix, the tuition burden has transferred from the parent to the parent’s community. The sending district must now issue a non-voted levy on the residents of their own district, compelling the sending districts to pay the transfer-tuition. However, these changes don’t fix the underlying problem: our current funding practices are unnecessarily complicated and insensitive to families’ needs.

In a May presentation, Montana’s Property Tax Taskforce’s Education Subcommittee noted, “… understanding the school funding formula is near impossible. The lack of transparency generates distrust and understandable confusion, even among those responsible for levying the taxes.” And now, districts and taxpayers are realizing that HB203 increases the overall price to educate transferring students, creates burdensome accounting demands for schools, and compromises parental privacy.

A Snapshot of Implementation:

For years, many of Montana’s rural districts that generally have seats available within their schools have been operating on gentlemen’s agreements, allowing parents to choose amongst the rural options without question. However, with the new rigid reporting requirements, this practice must stop. And, the tuition payments are essentially limiting choice because the burden placed on the very small schools is overwhelming, such as the case of the Luther School. Additionally, in Montana’s rural districts, everyone knows whose kid crosses district lines, so this is creating humiliation for parents and division within communities when property tax bills are examined.

The Simplest Solution Is the Best Solution: 

Tying tuition to out-of-district-transfers is unnecessary to do something as simple as filling empty seats. Worrying about which taxpayer pays for which student is the wrong focus. It’s far more equitable and transparent to embrace the guiding principles of Open Enrollment: end address discrimination, the practice of assigning children to schools based on zip codes, and allow parents to freely select between publicly funded schools as they would in any free-market. Mandatory Open Enrollment would remove district lines for parents while maintaining them for local control. This would allow students and parents to drive demand from the community-up rather than settle for a sole offering from the top-down.

Additionally, true Open Enrollment encourages schools to differentiate, as not all parents have the same reasons for choosing schools. Some care about academics, others about aligned values, specific curriculum or programming, safety, individualized attention, location, athletics, wrap-around and special education services, a receptive administration, engaged teachers, etc.

Policy should improve the lives of citizens by increasing and upholding the individual’s freedom and dignity. The system should not be superior to the individual.

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