The Montana House approved a bill to establish education savings accounts for students with special needs.
HB 393, which passed the House by a 66-32 vote on Friday, allows any student with a disability to apply for funding that can be used for a variety of educational services, including tuition, curriculum, special education services and transportation.
Nearly a dozen ESA programs exist nationwide according to EdChoice, but such programs are especially sparse in western states.
“Why do we need these savings accounts?” asked Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, the bill’s sponsor. “All students are different and their needs are similarly unique. Families need flexibility assessing the best and most appropriate educational setting for their child.”
However, opponents argued that parents shouldn’t be able to use tax dollars for private school expenses.
“This bill specifically states that private schools receiving funds from this account cannot be regulated by the state,” said Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena. “Passing this bill is sending taxpayers’ money to for-profit institutions with no oversight.”
But supporters say many public schools neglect or even abuse their special needs students.
Tragic examples include a Nebraska student whose special education teacher physically abused and called him a “jackass,” a North Carolina student who was locked in a closet more than 20 times as punishment, and a Colorado school district that didn’t protect a special needs child from being bullied and beaten by classmates.
State and federal investigations continue to turn up new cases of school districts failing to meet legal requirements of special education evaluations and services, to the detriment of their students.
Montana Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, pointed this trend out in defense of HB 393.
“And so, there isn’t always accountability,” she said. “I believe that this funding should follow the student and the student’s parents should get to make the final decision of where their special needs child is going to get the very best care and education.”
The measure now heads to the Senate. If approved, it will take effect July 1, 2023.