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Suing over funding for special needs students is a new low

by Jason Ellsworth
| February 25, 2024 12:00 AM

It takes a lot to surprise me anymore when it comes to politics or government. But suing to block funding for special needs kids to get an education that works for them? That’s a new low.

In case you missed the news in January, a lawsuit has been filed seeking to overturn the 2023 Legislature’s House Bill 393. HB 393 would allow parents of students with disabilities to have Education Savings Accounts that would reimburse them for education services obtained outside of their local public school. The intent of the bill is very simple: if a special needs student’s local school can’t provide them with the unique individualized education that they need to be successful, their parents can get reimbursed for sending them somewhere that better fits their needs. 

HB 393 was sponsored by House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, a Republican from Billings. She’s uniquely suited to legislate on this topic as the parent of a child with special needs. As Rep. Vinton told the Legislature and the media, her son benefitted from a great special needs program at his school when he was a student. But she knows other parents and kids in the special needs community who haven’t been as fortunate with their education opportunities. Those are the Montanans that HB 393 is meant to help. 

I applaud Representative Vinton and her family for having the courage to share their own story so publicly and for having the conviction to pass a bill to help other special needs families. 

I also agree with her that it is infuriating that the people behind this lawsuit are claiming that she, or any of us serving in the Legislature, had anything other than the best interests of special needs Montanans in mind when we passed the bill. 

Upper Seven Law, the law firm representing plaintiffs in the case, fired off a press release announcing the lawsuit in which they accuse HB 393 as being a “concerted effort to privatize education” and “masquerading as aid to students with disabilities.” Inflammatory, offensive and untrue. 

Upper Seven is a nonprofit law firm founded and run by staffers of former Gov. Steve Bullock. After being voted out of power in the 2020 elections, these members of the Bullock administration created the law firm to try to continue controlling state policy through the courts. The homepage of their website is dedicated to fundraising tax-deductible contributions from liberal donors to fund their positions and the lawsuits they file.

These are the people suing to keep special needs students in education environments that don’t serve their needs. 

On one side of this lawsuit are special needs students, their parents, and the Republican Legislature that Montanans elected. On the other side are unelected Democratic political staff lawyers determined to keep education a “one-size-fits-all” system that doesn’t serve students’ individual needs. 

We’ll see who the courts side with. 

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