HELENA — Two competing bills that would create new models for establishing charter schools in Montana are active once again, a day after being voted down on the Senate floor.
Throughout the 68th session, House Bills 549 and 562 has moved forward together. Both bills passed the House last month and through Senate committees over the last week. While they were stalled in the Senate on Wednesday, senators voted to reconsider their action on Thursday. The bills are now set for another preliminary vote in the Senate on Friday.
The first bill senators considered Wednesday was HB 562, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and backed by other GOP legislative leaders. That is the proposal that would create “community choice” charter schools – a system with greater autonomy from existing school administration. They would be exempted from a number of requirements that traditional public schools must follow, like teacher certification requirements.
The bill would create a new state commission under the Board of Public Education that could authorize choice schools, and local school boards could also apply for authorizing power. Schools would be operated by governing boards, eventually elected by parents and guardians of the students attending. Authorizers would have responsibility for overseeing the school’s performance.
Supporters of HB 562 said it was the best vehicle to provide real choice for students who aren’t served well by existing schools.
“Public school can handle the competition, if this is competitive and it is cost effective,” said Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell. “Please vote yes, and give students in Montana an opportunity and their parents an opportunity to have some real choices.”
But opponents had questions about the impact the new program would have on existing schools.
“Just in the back of my mind, I feel like there needs to be a little more work done on this to not affect the rest of the schools that we obviously need for our kids,” said Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby.
HB 562 failed narrowly on a 23-27 vote. 11 Republicans joined all Democrats in opposition, while the remaining 23 Republicans were in favor.
Immediately afterward, the Senate took up HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, which would expand charter schools in a framework closer to the existing system. It would give local school districts the first option to create charters, but allow independent schools to come in if districts don’t move forward on their own.
The Board of Public Education itself would be tasked with evaluating and approving charter schools and monitoring their performance. Charter schools operating independently of a local school district would still have their governing boards elected by the voters in that school district. Charter schools would also have fewer exemptions from the requirements public schools must follow.
“This is a perfect example of how students will have a choice,” said Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan. “They want to study something, they want to go somewhere where they can utilize and build their skills – this is an opportunity if they can't get it through their local public school.”
But opponents of that bill said it didn’t create a significant enough change.
“This isn’t needed; schools can already do many things that are here,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. “So I just encourage vote no on this, and let's move on.”
HB 549 was voted down by a much wider margin, 8-42. Seven Republicans and one Democrat voted for it, while 27 Republicans and 15 Democrats opposed it.
But on Thursday, the situation changed. The Senate approved motions to revive both bills. The carriers of each bill said they had spoken and wanted an opportunity to have more discussion. Salomon said he felt the previous day’s action had gotten caught up in politics, instead of policy.
If the bills pass through the Senate without being amended, they will go to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.
Another school choice-related measure is already on its way to Gianforte. House Bill 393, sponsored by Vinton, passed a final vote in the Senate Thursday, 28-22. That bill set up “education savings accounts” to allow families of students with special needs to access money for additional educational resources.