BISMARCK — Unions that represent educators are fighting bills in the North Dakota Legislature that they say would limit teacher negotiations, give public money to private schools and weaken public education in the process.

Proponents of the bills say their proposals would save the state money and financially help parents who decide to send their children to private school.

Jennifer Mastrud, president of the Fargo Education Association, a local teachers union, views the bills as an attack on public education, adding stress to educators.

"There is already a teacher recruitment and retention crisis across the state of North Dakota. Taking resources away from public schools, limiting time to collaborate on workplace and students' learning space conditions will only lead to more educator burnout and retention issues,” Mastrud said.

The proposals — two House bills and two Senate bills each with Republican sponsors — are nothing new, according to education groups, but some arguments from supporters are. The bills' backers base their arguments on a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, in which the court ruled that a law forbidding tax credit scholarships to religious schools was unconstitutional.

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A North Dakota law known as the Blaine Amendment says, “No money raised for the support of the public schools shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.”

One of the four bills, House Bill 1281, aims to provide an income tax credit of up to $2,000 a year to families whose children are enrolled in nonpublic school or home education. A similar voucher bill was proposed in the Senate, Senate Bill 2288, which would offer tax credits to organizations that provide educational scholarships to students in nonpublic schools.

Tom Tracy, a former superintendent of Kensal Public Schools, said that by giving incentives to parents to send their children to private school, House Bill 1281 would create competition, which he said is needed as public schools are “indoctrinating” children about gender identification.

“There are public schools that are doing away with automatically calling boys boys and girls girls when they enter school until their ‘true gender’ can be determined,” Tracy said. “There is a growing movement that public educators need to put more and more emphasis on diversity instead of emphasizing the benefits of citizenship. Along with that is the philosophy that all white people have a ‘built-in’ bias toward people of color and only through public education can this trend be reversed."

Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, R-Lisbon, who proposed House Bill 1281, said it would save the state money, adding that parents shouldn’t be “punished” for choosing to send their children to private schools.

Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a statewide union of more than 11,500 educators and public employees, testified against the bill. “They want to strengthen private schools and have the state of North Dakota help them do it,” he said.

Archuleta said public schools are duty-bound to educate every student who “walks, runs, rolls or is carried through our schoolhouse doors,” while private schools “do not accept students based on ability because the financial costs of educating students with cognitive impairments is quite high. They alone determine who will or will not attend their schools."

With about 7,000 students in private schools and 5,000 in home schools across the state, the first year’s tax credit could add up to $25 million, said Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders.

Limits on teacher negotiations

Another bill, Senate Bill 2215, would put a time limit on teacher contract negotiations, saying they "must be completed no later than June 1."

Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi testified in favor of the bill, saying the “adversarial relationships resulting from contentious negotiation processes are well documented and can significantly impact both district operations and culture.”

The longer negotiations take, Gandhi said, the more likely it is that the rhetoric of both sides becomes polarizing, which attracts the interests of news outlets as controversies deepen.

Archuleta said the bill puts teachers at a disadvantage by making the field less level. He pointed to the 1969 teachers strike in Minot where those involved were frustrated with how quickly negotiations were being terminated.

Before the strike ended, 22 teachers were jailed and 125 teachers were fired. The strike spurred legislative action, and laws were passed that have worked “quite well since,” Archuleta said.

Public money for instructional costs

House Bill 1369 would provide funding for educating children in nonpublic and public schools by having the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction help cover expenses for instructional or therapeutic needs.

Under the bill, the department would pay up to 20% for services for public school students and up to 75% for private school students. Some of the services that the department would pay for include tutoring for dyslexic students, courses that schools don't offer and educational therapies for students with learning disabilities.

The bill received an 11-3 do-not-pass recommendation in a committee hearing. Before the vote, however, several people spoke in favor of the bill.

Bette Grande, CEO of the Roughrider Policy Center, said the bill was constitutional, pointing toward the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue ruling.

“There is no constitutional problem with students using their account funds to attend a religious school or pay for any other religious option,” said Erica Smith, an attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice. “First, the program uses money from the general fund for the accounts, not funds raised for public schools. Second, the program does not appropriate money to sectarian schools or support those schools. Instead, the program gives money to families, to support those families. Any benefit to religious schools is incidental."

The Supreme Court’s ruling is “something they can hang their hat on,” Archuleta said. “But our constitution is fairly clear in North Dakota that the state has the responsibility of providing free education for all citizens.”

“Not every penny in the general fund is for education, but it’s there for the public good, and it’s still taking money that was raised through taxes and giving it to private schools or parochial schools,” Archuleta said. “Our state does not have a history for using public funds for private education.”