Ed Stafman

Ed Stafman

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When Puritan settlers established America’s first public school in 1635, they planted the seed of a national ideal: that education should serve as the country’s “great equalizer.” Our public schools are among America’s greatest of institutions, which ensure that all children have a shot at success, and which bind us a society by exposing children to others who may be different from them, rather than separating us by class or religion.

Montana’s public education system is one we can all be proud of. But, the divisiveness that seeks to undermine so many American institutions is coming for our public schools. By diverting public money from public schools toward private and religious schools, Montana Republicans are damaging our educational system and eroding our public schools’ centuries-old role as “the great equalizer.”

Because the Montana Constitution bans state funding of religion, the 2019 Legislature passed a shell game scheme where someone can donate up to $150 to a special fund and get a tax credit for that donation, reducing Montana’s revenue while costing the donor nothing. That special fund then gives that money to religious and private schools. The scheme is like the carnival booth where the quick hands of the operator moving shells makes it difficult to know which shell an object is under. In this way, taxpayer money is diverted from state coffers to religious and private schools. But the modest $150 limit per taxpayer meant that the impact was relatively small.

It turns out that the $150 limit was just a clever way to get the camel’s nose under the tent. The 2021 Republican dominated legislature’s House Bill 279, supported by Gov. Gianforte, increased the $150 limit per taxpayer more than a thousandfold, to $200,000. This represents a huge shift of public resources to private and religious schools. The bait and switch plan worked: Now, millionaires like Gov. Gianforte, the founder of one of Montana’s largest religious schools, can play the shell game with large sums of money. They can donate $200,000 to the special fund and reduce their taxes dollar for dollar, reducing funding for Montana’s public schools by that same amount. Once the shells stop moving, it costs the donor nothing, but public schools are out $200,000 and the private school has $200,000. Multiply that by however many millionaire donors want to fund religious and private schools for the wealthy and the erosion of our great American equalizer is well underway.

Families who send their kids to public school are victims of these shell games and bait-and-switch schemes because there will be less money to educate our kids. But, all Montanans are victims. The private and religious schools that receive taxpayer dollars are not accountable to local school boards or state education officials the way that public schools are. They can turn away children they don’t wish to teach, and they aren’t held to standards about whether their students are actually learning what they need to learn. In its first year, 94% of this public money went to religious schools, some of which use textbooks that promote disdain for other religions and teach versions of science or history which will not prepare our students for the future.

I support the right of parents to send their children to private and religious schools. But I draw the line at using taxpayer dollars to subsidize them. We are privileged to have a first-rate public education system that provides a quality education to our children. Parents sending their children to private or religious schools should not do so at the expense of parents who rely on our public schools.

Gov. Gianforte promised us a comeback plan. It turns out to be just another shell game. We’re getting a setback plan, where our public schools and Montana taxpayers suffer, while the very wealthy benefit at our expense.

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Representative Ed Stafman represents Bozeman’s House District 62 in the Montana Legislature.

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