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Students take advantage of new schooling options

by Sen. Jason Ellsworth
| March 7, 2024 12:00 AM

Of the many education reforms passed by the 2023 Legislature, one has been generating a lot of news lately, particularly in the Bozeman area.

For example, local news station KBZK reported that as of the end of February, the Bozeman School Board had approved 93 students’ applications to attend a school outside of the district they live in. Those students included 35 in K-5, 25 middle-schoolers, and 33 high-schoolers.

What allowed those students to change their school? House Bill 203, a bipartisan piece of legislation that unanimously passed the Legislature last year. While news coverage has been spottier in parts of the state other than Bozeman, HB 203 applies statewide.

The bill made it easier for students to attend a school other than the one their address would otherwise dictate they go to. Maybe a student needs a fresh start at a new school. Maybe a different school has a special program or opportunity, like advanced classes, that they’d like to participate in.

HB 203 doesn’t discriminate on families’ reasons for wanting to change schools. Rather, it lets parents and students make the best choice for their education within our public school system.

The bill also balances the needs of schools and local property taxpayers. If a school is at full capacity, they don’t have to accept out-of-district students. If a student is attending a school outside of their district, the burden of paying for their education doesn’t fall on the taxpayers of their new school, but rather remains the responsibility of the taxpayers of the district they live in.

An added bonus for the taxpayers of the school the kid is now attending is that the revenue generated by the new attendee must go to reducing property taxes.

Over time, HB 203 will make a meaningful impact on individual students, entire school systems, and taxpayers. Students get to choose the public-school option that works best for them. Schools that are providing high-quality education environments that attract more out-of-district students will see their enrollments and budgets grow, while reducing the burden on their local property taxpayers.

On the flip side, if a school is losing students to other districts, that should be an immediate and tangible sign to that school that they are underperforming in one or more ways and need to take corrective action.

Competition is good. It allows people to experiment and choose what works best. HB 203 has injected a small amount of competition into our public-school system, which will eventually make the entire system better.

A better school system is a massive win for Montanans across the board.

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the president of the Montana Senate.