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Montana lawmakers weigh two competing bills to expand charter schools

School Crossing
Posted at 7:10 PM, Mar 17, 2023

HELENA — Two bills that would establish distinctly different new models for charter schools in Montana both got wide support in the state House earlier this month. Now, there’s a lot of work left to do to figure out what a final plan could look like.

As the House approached its transmittal break, lawmakers gave initial approval to House Bill 562, 63 votes to 37, and House Bill 549, 79 votes to 21. Now, both bills are set for consideration in the House Appropriations Committee, which focuses on potential budget impacts.

Many lawmakers voted to keep both bills moving forward, saying they wanted some charter school plan to advance and were open to reconciling the two later in the session.

“I think that it's a combination of looking at the best aspects of both bills and listening to the questions and the concerns from legislators,” said Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, the House majority leader. “If there's a preference for one over another, we'll find that out as we continue through this process. And if the preference is to combine aspects of both bills, I'm certainly open to that as well.”

Vinton sponsored HB 562, which would create charter schools more independent from the existing education system. “Community choice schools” would operate largely autonomously, with exemptions from a number of requirements that traditional public schools must follow. For example, teachers would not have the same certification requirements.

“Community choice charter schools might open up the teaching staff to community members – professionals that deal specifically in the subject matter being taught,” Vinton said.

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.

Vinton said the system would ensure community schools have accountability for their finances and their operations. She also said the schools would be required to accept all students who apply, so they wouldn’t be picking and choosing.

“If there is a desire and a market out there for community choice charter schools, it will happen,” Vinton said. “But if there's no need for that, then people will continue to send their children to the local public school.”

HB 562 is co-sponsored by the top Republican leaders in both the House and Senate.

HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would expand charter schools, but in a framework closer to existing schools. It would give local school districts the first option to create charter schools, but allow independent schools to come in if districts don’t move forward on their own.

Anderson said he didn’t believe previous charter school proposals had sufficient “checks and balances,” and he wanted a proposal that would maintain more of the educational statutes currently in place.

“What this bill really does is respects the authority of the local school board as prescribed in the Constitution – and also, as a primary educational provider in every district, gives them the opportunity to address the needs of the people before it goes out to an outside entity,” he said.

Under HB 549, 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.

“The other thing that I really wanted to have on my bill is following the constitutional mandates,” Anderson said.

51 Republicans and 1 Democrat in the House voted for both HB 549 and HB 562, while 10 Democrats voted against both. 11 Republicans voted only for HB 562, while 21 Democrats and 6 Republicans voted only for HB 549.

The Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union that represents public school teachers, has frequently opposed charter school proposals that they see as diverting public education funding. This year, MFPE President Amanda Curtis says they’re strongly opposing HB 562 – in part because of the exemptions from things like teacher certification and the public pension system – but not taking a strong position on HB 549. However, she argued neither bill is necessary, because state rules already allow school districts to launch charters.

“It's not a choice of the school district wanting to do it or not; every public school in Montana wants to provide exactly the education that parents are asking for and that kids need,” said Curtis. “The solution here is to adequately fund Montana's public schools so that they can say yes to every single charter request the parents bring them.”

Curtis said the Bozeman School District has already established a successful charter school, but it is facing budgetary challenges to maintain it.

If the House Appropriations Committee advances one or both bills, they will face a final vote on the House floor before moving over to the Senate.