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Kendall Cotton: Parents want education freedom, let’s give it to them | Columnists

It goes without saying that one education does not fit all students. The educational needs of students are as diverse and unique as the students themselves.

But Montana’s system of education is not always designed to cater to the unique needs of students. The COVID-19 pandemic has left many Montana families feeling frustrated with the limited options available to them and looking for new ways to provide their children with a high-quality education.

As parents demand more options, lawmakers can deliver by granting families more freedom to choose the best education to fit their child.

There’s no question the demand for more education options has reached an all-time high, with many parents opting to educate their kids at home. Even after the pandemic had begun to wane, a whopping 9,868 students or 6.1% of Montana’s total enrollment were being homeschooled in the 2020-2021 school year. In comparison, that number was just 5,743 during the 2018-2019 school year.

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But homeschooling isn’t the only education option that has seen an increase in interest over the last few years. Montana has seen a huge surge in interest in funding innovative education options in both public and private schools, all thanks to a tax credit law changed by Montana’s 2021 Legislature.

The funding cap for the public school innovation program was maxed out in a matter of minutes. Similarly, the limit for the private school scholarship tax credit was also quickly maxed out, closing in a couple of days. Earlier this year the Department of Revenue sent an update to the Education Interim Committee explaining that the tax credit donation guide had been downloaded a shocking 320,000 times by the end of 2021.

As a result of interest in the tax credit, the number of private school scholarship organizations has also ballooned. When the landmark case Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue went before The Supreme Court in 2020 there was only one school scholarship organization, as of January 2022 that number is now five.

It’s clear that individuals and businesses around Montana are responding to the substantial demand for providing students with more diverse opportunities and choice.

Importantly, these education options are helping to provide a choice to students and families who wouldn’t otherwise have one. For example, one of the largest school scholarship organizations operating in Montana, ACE scholarships, only provides scholarships to students with family incomes of $57,000 for a family of three or fewer.

Choice in education has rarely been an issue for wealthier families that can afford private school tuition, but programs like Montana’s education tax credit scholarships are finally providing the same opportunity to less-fortunate families.

While Montana parents are just now getting a taste of this educational freedom, parents in other states have seen its benefits for years. Nearly every state in the US provides more education options for students than Montana. 44 states allow for innovative educational options like charter schools. Eight states have created Education Savings Accounts, a program that allows parents to direct their student’s share of education dollars to pay for a variety of educational options, such as private or public school tuition, tutoring, special learning programs for students with learning disabilities, education therapies, accelerated learning programs etc.

Demand for education options is at an all-time high in Montana but leaders have a lot of work to do to catch up to other states. Education shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Parents are demanding more freedom to make choices about their child’s education, and lawmakers should give it to them.

Kendall Cotton is president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montanans can thrive.

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