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Montana teachers union files pair of 'school choice' lawsuits

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Mark Moran

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(Big Sky Connection) Montana's largest teachers union has filed two lawsuits against "school choice" measures in the state.

Montana lawmakers passed House Bill 393 last year, creating Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) that would allow parents to use public money to pay for kids' private school tuition. 

Montana's is a little different than similar ESAs around the country, in that it applies only to special education student tuition. 

Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis said funding the ESAs can't help but affect public school students. 

"The voucher scheme will defund Montana's public schools," said Curtis, "which takes away the constitutional right of every Montana kid to a free, quality public education."

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Curtis added that in order for a special education student to receive state money in an ESA, the family has to waive its right to federal special-ed benefits - which she contends also unconstitutional.

Supporters of ESAs say they can better meet their children's educational needs outside the public school system. Thirteen states have some form of ESA, and the movement is growing nationwide. 

The union has also filed suit against House Bill 562, which creates a charter school system in Montana - with schools that would not be governed by the Montana Office of Public Instruction, but by a group of parents and school staff. 

Curtis said the state would have no oversight of such a commission, which has prompted opposition by the Montana Quality Education Coalition - considered the "heavy hitters" in Montana public education.

"It's the School Boards Association," said Curtis. "It is the school administrators. It is all of the rural educators. It's superintendents from every single class of school - nearly every school district - across the state."

Supporters of the charter school measure - like ESA proponents - say as taxpayers, they want more more choice in how to educate their kids using money that would otherwise go to public schools they aren't using. 

Both suits await action in state court.