Lawsuit Claims Ed Bill for Students with Disabilities is Unconstitutional

A lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims that a bill intended to assist children with disabilities would actually result in a significant loss of funding for public schools. The bill, known as House Bill 393, is being described as a “blank check” that would negatively impact rural districts and allow state funds to be used by private institutions at the discretion of individuals. In addition, the voucher program outlined in the bill is said to contradict principles of both quality and equality in education. The lawsuit, brought by the Montana Quality Education Coalition and Disability Rights Montana, asserts that the bill is unconstitutional in multiple ways, including the allocation of public funds to private entities and the potential disadvantage it poses to certain students. The Upper Seven Law firm, representing the plaintiffs, argues that House Bill 393 contradicts the Montana Constitution’s mandate to provide a free and equitable public education system. The lawsuit claims that the bill will make it more challenging to serve students with disabilities who choose to remain enrolled in public schools and does not ensure that those who opt for education savings accounts (ESAs) will receive an appropriate education. The bill, which passed by a slim margin in 2023, enables parents of children with special needs to seek reimbursement for their child’s education in homeschools, private schools, or online nonpublic schools using taxpayer funds. The reimbursement program allows parents to be reimbursed for various expenses related to their child’s education, including tutoring and test preparation. Opposition to the bill during the legislative session included threats of legal action and accusations that the bill simply diverts public funds. The lawsuit, filed against the State of Montana, Governor Greg Gianforte, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, claims that the bill authorizes “standardless spending” and could redirect up to $140 million annually from school districts to private individuals. It argues that the bill will reduce resources available to public schools while failing to guarantee appropriate services for students with disabilities. The lawsuit highlights the fact that the cost of public education will remain the same, even with the implementation of the bill, placing additional strain on school districts. The Montana Quality Education Coalition emphasizes its commitment to quality public education and its belief that House Bill 393 allows the state legislature to evade its responsibility to provide equal educational opportunities. In response to the lawsuit, Elsie Arntzen stated that she supports children of all abilities and believes that parents are best equipped to determine their child’s educational needs. The Governor’s Office expressed support for education but did not directly address the lawsuit. House Bill 393 is one of several education bills that faced controversy during the recent legislative session. Another bill, House Bill 562, is currently under temporary injunction due to a separate lawsuit that argues it diverts public school tax dollars to private schools in violation of the state constitution. The plaintiffs are represented by the Upper Seven Law firm in both lawsuits, and the firm’s executive director asserts that House Bill 393 undermines Montana’s commitment to providing a quality education for all students.

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