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Montana lawmakers consider fundamental changes to K-12 education; cost to public schools unclear

A fiscal note on both bills says the cost of the measures cannot be known at this point because there are no spending caps in the law.
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Posted at 6:35 PM, Mar 27, 2023

BILLINGS — The Montana Legislature is considering proposals that will fundamentally change how K-12 education is funded, by allowing for both local and virtual charter schools in the state.

Two bills are under consideration in the House appropriations committee: HB 562, sponsored by Billings Republican Sue Vinton, and HB 59, sponsored by Republican Fred Anderson of Great Falls.

“The intention of House Bill 562 is to create options that empower parents, encourage students to develop their full educational potential, provide a variety of professional opportunities for teachers, and encourage educational entrepreneurship as vital to the economic competitiveness of our state,” Vinton said in committee last week.

This is new for Montana, where there are currently no charter schools. But it's old news in Oklahoma, where charter schools were introduced about 20 years ago, and virtual charter schools about 10 years ago.

Rural mom-turned-public education advocate Erika Wright says she wishes she would have paid closer attention then.

“Here in our state, I wouldn’t even say we’re on a slippery slope. Like, we’re on a cliff, with two wheels of the school buses hanging off, about to go off. It's very important for us in Oklahoma and I’m sure in Montana that parents really start to pay attention to what is going on, because if you don’t and you just go on about your day, you’re going to turn around and wake up once the bus has gone off the cliff and wish you had done more,” Wright said.

As an example, a private, for-profit virtual charter school in Oklahoma profited millions in recent years and became the subject of multiple agency audits, with its founders facing felony charges for financial crimes.

Wright said Montanans should be asking now how charter schools will be funded and what accountability measures will be in place.

“I think the number one question that voters and constituents need to be asking, that I wish I would have asked more, back you know, 10 years ago, is, how is this funded? Where is the money coming from for this? And also, who profits?” she said.

That’s a question Montana lawmakers don’t have a clear answer for, at least not yet.

A fiscal note on both bills says the cost of the measures cannot be known at this point because there are no spending caps in the law, and the number of charter schools that could be created is also unlimited.

Each would be entitled to annual funding up to 80% of basic K-12 entitlements, which are about $56,000 for elementary schools, $111,000 for middle schools, and $335,000 for high schools.

The amount of entitlement requested would come from the local charter school board which, according to the bill, would be elected by only the parents and teachers of the school.

A coalition of public school groups is opposing HB562, and offering instead to support HB549, which is similar but offers more regulations.

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Board Association, spoke in the House Appropriations Committee against HB562 last week, saying the estimates in the fiscal note to help illustrate the funding model are far below what could be spent if the bill becomes law as currently written.

“I can do the math on this and show you very quickly how you’ll spend $15 million bucks. Twenty schools across the state, located in the AA community schools, with a basic entitlement that goes with each and every one of them, and you could be 20 times easily, the amount that is identified in here, and likewise for the other competing bill [HB549],” he said.

HB 562 proposes that all of that money would come from the same pot of state money as Montana’s public schools, and that local levies could be increased as well to pay for charter schools.

This measure also exempts charter schools from Montana Code Annotated Title 20, which are the statutory regulations on public schools in Montana that all other schools must follow.

Local public school entitlements could also be statutorily decreased if the needs of the charter school increased.

The Montana Farmers Union spoke out against the bill in committee last week.

“Charter schools do not serve urban and rural students equally and have been shown to underserve students with disabilities and special needs, which is a particular need in rural schools, having those children get what they need. Pulling five or 10 students out of a public school and sending that funding to a charter school could easily collapse the funding for a public school in a rural area,” said Jasmin Krotov, representative for the Farmers Union.

The governor’s communications team will not specify which education reform bills the governor will support. It is now unclear if Gianforte will support charter school legislation. When asked whether he would sign House Bill 562, a spokesperson for the governor responded Tuesday by saying “the governor will carefully consider bills in their final forms when the legislature sends them to him."

A previous version of this story stated that charter school legislation was a priority for the governor.

GOP party leadership in both the House and Senate support implementing charter school legislation this session as well.

Proponents argue it offers more choices for parents – and the funding to pay for it.

HB562 and HB 549 are in House Appropriations Committee this week. The next hearing has not been scheduled.