Montana Denies Tuition Benefits to Religious Preschoolers

By Alliance Defending Freedom Litigation Counsel Rory Gray

For years, the State of Montana provided tuition funding for preschoolers with special needs to attend the preschool of their parents’ choice under the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).  The IDEA ensures that all special needs students receive a preschool education so that they are prepared for kindergarten when they reach the appropriate age.  But in September 2012 all of that changed.  The Office of Public Instruction, Montana’s Department of Education, suddenly prohibited the use of IDEA funds to pay for tuition at religious preschools based on a misreading of longstanding federal regulations that merely enforce the Establishment Clause.  Needless to say, this concerned many parents who were informed that their children would have to immediately transfer to a secular private school if they wished to continue receiving the tuition funding to which they are statutorily entitled.

The parents of one four-year-old preschooler with hearing and speech-language impairments contacted Alliance Defending Freedom for help.  Because Montana public schools do not offer preschool services, the local school district had allowed them to place their daughter in a local Christian preschool, which it categorized as “an excellent preschool” that employed staff who are “so willing to accommodate and modify” the instructional program “to meet the needs [of] students with special needs.”  These parents were concerned not only that transferring their daughter to a secular preschool would derail her educational progress, but also that Montana was denying students tuition benefits based on the exercise of their religious faith.

Last Friday, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a due process complaint on their behalf with the Office of Public Instruction, the first step in an administrative hearing process that parents must complete before filing a lawsuit.  The complaint makes crystal clear that the Free Exercise Clause protects parents’ voluntary enrollment of their children in a private religious preschool and bars Montana from targeting conduct that is undertaken for religious reasons.  It also explains that the Establishment Clause permits religious schools to receive public funds so long as the funds come to the school as a result of the private choices of individual parents, which is precisely what is occurring here.  We hope that the Office of Public Instruction will comply with the Constitution and restore religious students’ tuition funding.  But if it does not, Alliance Defending Freedom will continue to advocate for our client’s God-given, First Amendment rights in the state administrative hearing process and, if need be, in federal court.

Author: Alliance Defending Freedom