Hearing held for ND bill on partial tuition reimbursement
State lawmakers hear from both sides as parents and educators weigh in on the potential impact of the bill
BISMARCK — A bill to create an educational reimbursement program is under debate in Bismarck. The bill was introduced by Representatives Claire Cory (R-42), Jim Kasper (R-46) and others to provide partial subsidization of private school tuition in North Dakota.
To join the program, parents must get a form from a qualified school for their eligible child. Schools must certify enrollment and ask for funds. The state will subsidize 15-30% of tuition and have accountability measures.
The bill has received commentary from more than 200 North Dakota residents who expressed overwhelming support, with 21 of them writing in opposition. If it can pass legislative hurdles and get Gov. Burgum’s signature, the bill will become law on July 1, 2024.
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Daniel R. Rice, former Dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the UND, offered written testimony against the proposal. Rice argued that the bill is unconstitutional and violates Article VIII, Section 5 of the ND Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for the support of sectarian schools.
"The bill is a clear violation of the ND Constitution," Rice stated. "It attempts to find a way around the will of the citizens of the state as enshrined in our Constitution."
In his testimony, Rice pointed out that the bill would reimburse parents for expenses incurred by a child attending a non-public school, but that the funds would be appropriated by the legislature.
"If the state actually has an extra $24 million, it would be better used for the public schools that face a teacher and staff shortage,” Rice stated. “Or for the colleges and universities that are cutting programs and laying off faculty and staff."
Mandan Public Schools Superintendent Mike Bitz testified in opposition to the bill but said he could be persuaded to support it if certain changes were made. He expressed concerns that the bill brings into question the autonomy, privacy and discretionary privileges enjoyed by private schools.
“One of the things that makes our private schools great and attractive to our parents is that they have the ability to say no, they can say no to parents, they can say no to students and they can say no to the state,” Bitz said. “Last week in this very committee, my representative and my friend from District 34, Representative Porter, stated that once an entity takes public dollars, they are subject to open records and open meetings laws.”
He added that he believed this would mean such a school’s finances would have to be made public, emails would be public record and the institutions would be required to submit audits. He further argued the bill “cherry picks” beneficiaries, contending that the qualification stipulations could allow the private schools to exclude students with behavioral issues, intellectual disabilities and other special education needs. He also pointed out that rural students who are not within driving distance of a private school would inevitably be excluded from these subsidies.
Bitz said his school has a great relationship with Bismarck St. Mary’s Catholic, and that he enjoyed watching a basketball game between them the night before. He pointed out that both teams were held to the same rules on the court, and argued the same standard should be applied if they are to compete for taxpayer funding.
“Our emails and financial statements are open to the public. And we are required to submit an audit. I can support public dollars for private education, under the same rules, we can’t have two separate sets of rules, it's not fair. I urge you to either amend this bill, or to kill it,” he said.
Whitney Oxendahl, another opponent of HB 1532, believes that the proposed $24 million for educational reimbursement from the General Fund should be used to provide free school lunches and pay competitive wages to school teachers.
"Let's use these dollars to make sure students across the state are receiving high-quality public education," she stated.
During a Friday phone interview with The Press, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Minot, explained his support for HB 1532. He said the program is not means-tested and open to all students. Kasper had originally planned to introduce a bill that would’ve subsidized tuition at 75% rather than 15-30%. He said he’s okay with the lower figures, but that the legislation needs work to clarify how the percentages are determined within that range.
Kasper said he believes the bill does not jeopardize the privacy rights and religious freedoms of private schools, but that he would push for amendments to guarantee them if necessary. He argued the bill fulfills a need for greater competition and provides parents with an alternative to an “unacceptable” status quo in many schools throughout the state.
“Many public schools are forgetting their constitutional responsibility, which is to teach our kids math, reading, English, science and technology. Instead they're going woke. They're going off on tangents, getting into transgenderism and sexuality… areas I believe should be off limits to the schools,” Kasper said.
He lamented the results and trends he’s seen recently in much of public education.
“The test scores of our (public school) students are abysmal, and they're getting worse. So I want competition. The private schools, in almost all cases, are doing a better job of educating students,” Kasper said. “So our public schools need competition. They need to get back to teaching the kids and get out of the area of social and moral engineering. That's not their responsibility."
Sara Dudley is principal of St. Michael’s Catholic School in Grand Forks. Dudley argued that accredited non-public schools receive Department of Instruction (DPI) approval using the same standards as public schools, which is the State Automated Reporting System. She argued this guarantees a level of professionalism for institutions across the state, public or not.
John Odermann is a vice chairman of the ND GOP, Dickinson city commissioner and head football coach at Trinity High School. He provided written testimony in support of the bill. He argued the purpose of the bill is not to replace public schools.
“Our state’s private schools have proven over the past century that they are not here to replace public education, they are a supplemental partner in educating our children, which have long been North Dakota’s most valuable resource,” Odermann stated.
Amid record high inflation, he argued it would relieve financially strained parents who want their children to learn and grow within Christian, faith-based environments.
“HB 1532 would go a long way to helping it make sense financially for those families who dutifully pay their property taxes each year and would have liked to have their child be able to continue to attend school in person during the COVID pandemic, but could not afford it,” Odermann wrote.
One such mother of three is Kimberly Effa of Grand Forks. Effa is a full-time real estate agent and her husband works in agriculture. She said they bought their home to be in proximity to an esteemed public elementary school. Then the pandemic hit.
“Seemingly everything turned political — from social issues to masking, American history and our cherished American traditions. It was during this very heated political climate in our world that my husband and I had a very long discussion about where (our daughter) would begin her education,” Effa said while testifying during a House Education Committee hearing at the State Capitol on Wednesday. “We knew we had the parental duty and choice to see our kids raised in an environment that shared our beliefs and philosophies. That is when I reached out to St. Michael's, five days before the start of her kindergarten year. I'm a Lutheran and chose to send my kid to a non-public, Catholic school. This certainly was not an easy decision.”
She noted they’ve been able to accomplish this with some financial assistance from St. Michael’s and the children’s grandparents.
“I know there are other parents and caregivers that cannot afford the nonpublic schools,” Effa said. “One of the most important things I have learned about raising children is that it's impossible to go back and restart their educational journey. You get one chance to raise your kids. That's it.”
The bill now rests with House Education Committee awaiting further action. To contact a legislator during session, call 1-888-NDLEGIS or 701-328-3373 or use "Contact My Legislators." Otherwise, reach out via mail, phone, or email using the information in their biography or provided lists.