HELENA – State lawmakers heard several hours of testimony Wednesday on a proposal to establish public charter schools in Montana.

The House Education Committee held its initial hearing on House Bill 376, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder.

HB 376 would create a seven-member state commission to oversee charter schools in Montana. Members would be appointed by the governor and by legislative leaders, and the superintendent of public instruction would serve as presiding officer.

The commission would establish a procedure for school districts to propose, open and operate charter schools, if residents in the district filed a petition asking for one. The charter schools would operate independently from the Board of Public Education, which oversees and sets accreditation standards for other public schools in the state.

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Windy Boy says, during his time in the legislature, he’s seen too many students, especially on tribal reservations, aren’t succeeding in the current public school system.

“In the last eight years, that’s all I kept hearing OPI say, ‘We have 75 percent graduation rate,’” he said. “I said, ‘Okay, well, that’s fine. I’m proud of those 75 percent; I’m glad that they’re succeeding. But where I’m at is that I want to look at those 25 percent.”

Windy Boy says HB 376 would give districts more flexibility to meet those students’ needs.

But opponents said there are already options for districts that want to offer different educational environments. The Board of Public Education offers districts a procedure to exceptions to certain requirements, if they maintain equal or improved outcomes for students. There is even an existing administrative rule allowing them to create charter school programs.

“Public schools can innovate within the current structure,” said Siri Smillie, an education policy advisor to Gov. Steve Bullock. “In fact, we know they’re innovating and meeting the needs of students while still meeting the standards set by the Board of Public Education and their local school board and community.”

Opponents also questioned whether putting charter schools outside the authority of the Board of Public Education violates the state constitution.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.