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Guest Editorial: Scholarships support more Montana students

The start of the 2022-23 school year marks the dawn of new educational opportunities for students across Montana. The Tax Credits for Qualified Education Contributions Program will send its largest ever number of scholarship recipients to high-quality K-12 nonpublic schools this fall. For these students, the start of this school year represents a new beginning—a new chance to succeed academically and pursue their dreams.

We are thrilled for these students, and we cannot wait to see what they accomplish. But as state legislators who believe strongly that every Montana student deserves an education that fits his or her unique needs, we also know there is still much work to do.

Like many other states, Montana’s scholarship program works entirely thanks to private contributions from businesses and individuals to state-approved, nonprofit student scholarship organizations (SSOs).

Individual or corporate taxpayers who contribute to these organizations receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit for their gift, providing a strong incentive for them to support educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.

Those donations are then used to fund K-12 nonpublic school scholarships for students, usually prioritized on the basis of economic need. For instance, ACE Scholarships, the largest SSO in Montana, provides scholarships to students from families with income levels at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or about $69,000 for a family of four.

Until recently, the program was hobbled by unnecessary restrictions. For instance, the law restricted donors from contributing more than $150 dollars per year. Considering that average tuition in a Montana nonpublic school is between $6,000 and $8,000 per year, it would take about 50 donors to fully fund one student’s tuition payments—although even doing that was impossible, as the program capped scholarship values far below the actual cost to educate a child.

This was not an efficient way to run the program, and the result was that only a handful of students received tiny scholarships in the years following the program’s launch.

HB 279, enacted in 2021, addressed many of these issues. It increased the annual contribution limit from $150 to $200,000 for businesses and individuals, enabling larger gifts from generous donors that will fund students in need and provide a stronger incentive for giving toward the program. It also removed limitations on scholarship sizes, allowing more meaningful scholarships to struggling families.

Further, since the cost of this program is significantly lower than the total cost for public education, these scholarships also lessen the tax burden on the education system and provide for a larger share of resources for students that choose to attend public schools.

The program is now capped at $1 million for 2021 and will grow to $2 million next year. Thereafter, it will grow by 20 percent in any year where SSOs manage to raise 80 percent of the cap.

These changes have proved pivotal for hundreds of Montana children. As we enter the 2022-2023 school year, approximately 250 new scholarship students will start their educational journeys in new schools that would have been out of reach without the passage of HB 279.

From there, it is up to them to write their own success stories.

As we watch those students thrive in their new environments, we hope to one day bring that same opportunity to the many other children still waiting for help. For now, we are excited to see what this school year brings the first round of Montana scholarship students under the newly expanded program—and we are grateful for the opportunity to have played a role in making their educational dreams a reality.

Rep. Seth Berglee (R-Joliet) represents HD 58 in the Montana House of Representatives and serves as Chairman of the House Education Committee.

Rep. Sue Vinton (R-Lockwood) serves as Majority Leader in the Montana House of Representatives, represents HD 56, and is a member of the House Education Committee.

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