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Montana Senate committee holds hearings on competing charter school bills

Charter School Hearing
Posted at 12:45 AM, Apr 18, 2023

HELENA — A Montana Senate committee now has the task of deciding how to move forward on two competing proposals to create new models for charter schools in the state.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on House Bills 549 and 562.

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said he had compared the two proposals earlier in the session and found they were roughly 70% similar. At this point, though, much of the testimony was focused on the differences between the two models.

HB 562, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would create “community choice schools” – charter schools that would operate largely independently from the existing public school system. They would be exempted from a number of requirements that those schools, 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.

Vinton said HB 562 would be the best option for encouraging educational innovation.

“The one-size-fits-all approach of traditional public schools does not work for every student,” she said. “This bill provides for independence – and likewise provides for ample oversight.”

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.

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.

Anderson said he wanted to make sure any charter proposal remained in line with the state’s established educational law.

“This bill was specifically crafted to meet our constitutional requirements,” he said. “It respects the authority of local school boards – local control – provides for a locally elected governing board while honoring the authority of the state Board of Public Education.”

In his testimony, Melton endorsed HB 549 and opposed HB 562. He said the state already has laws and rules allowing for the type of innovation charter schools can provide, and he was concerned about allowing significant exemptions.

“House Bill 549 doesn't look for an escape from accountability,” he said. “Rather, it embraces that accountability and provides a focused means by which school districts and other applicants can focus in on and provide innovative educational programing – something, again, that's maybe different than the average.”

Those who preferred HB 562 over HB 549 defended the accountability in that bill, since a school failing to meet its educational goals could have its charter revoked. Many witnesses testified they wanted charter schools to be a complete break from the current system, which they believe isn’t working.

“This basically lets the same people be in charge, and we want different,” said Barbara Calahan.

Lisa Melina Pyron questioned whether HB 549 would be enough to significantly expand access to charter schools.

“To me, it's a distinction without a difference,” she said. “There doesn't seem to be a whole lot more to change from the status quo. I feel that if parents and communities had wanted to take advantage of what already exists, they would have done so – but we have one example, in Bozeman.”

HB 562 also drew opposition from groups like the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which argued the proposal was diverting funding away from the public school system.

“I know we have different definitions of public, but my definition of public includes me being able to vote for the governance of the school if my tax dollars are going for it,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen’s office supported both bills, saying the public has asked for more educational options and should have them.

The committee also heard testimony Monday on House Bill 393, also sponsored by Vinton. That bill would set up “education savings accounts” to allow families of students with special needs to access money for additional educational resources.

The committee took no immediate action on these bills. Chair Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said at the end of Monday’s meeting that he hoped to have the committee vote on them on Wednesday.