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House advances dueling charter school bills

Two Republican proposals outlining different charter school systems in Montana passed initial floor votes this week.
Posted at 8:09 AM, Mar 06, 2023

HELENA — Lawmakers in the Montana House advanced a pair of dueling proposals this week that outline distinct and contradictory paths toward a K-12 charter school system in the state, hinting at a fundamental divide among Republicans about how to resolve a long-standing debate over educational choice.

The first of those measures to appear on the House floor Wednesday was House Bill 562, which would authorize the creation of “community choice schools” under the jurisdiction of a new, autonomous statewide commission attached to the Montana Board of Public Education. Parents and community groups could, under HB 562, seek approval for such a school directly from the new commission or from an authorized local school board. Choice schools would be subject to the same federal laws as K-12 public schools, but governed at the state level by their own set of curricular, licensing and academic reporting regulations.

“The intent of this bill 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,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said Thursday. She added that HB 562 would provide “ample oversight” of newly established community choice schools.

Vinton’s introduction kicked off a heated discussion as Republican supporters sought to promote the bill as a way to improve educational freedom, increase institutional competition and break what Rep. Terry Falk, R-Kalispell, called the “monopoly” of the current public school system. Critics within the Democratic caucus countered that HB 562 would commit taxpayer dollars to an educational model without adequate accountability measures or teacher certification requirements. Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, directly challenged the legality of the proposal, noting that the Montana Constitution vests oversight of public education in the Board of Public Education and locally elected school boards.

Thane and others struggled to comply with procedural rules preventing them from discussing another piece of charter school legislation, sticking primarily to veiled references. That dam broke loose several hours later when the second proposal — House Bill 549 — came to the floor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, is part of a package of Republican-led education reform bills introduced this session and seeks to place state oversight of charter schools directly in the hands of the Board of Public Education. Anderson’s public charter schools would be governed by the same laws and administrative rules applied to public schools, and be under the local jurisdiction of either an existing elected school board or a locally elected charter school board.

Anderson emphasized in his opening remarks that parents or any concerned group of citizens who “desire educational opportunities that are not being currently provided by their school district” can appeal to local trustees with a charter application. That, he continued, gives the board an initial chance to address those concerns by expanding programming in existing public schools or by approving the charter. If unsuccessful, parents or citizens could then take their request to the Board of Public Education.

“What this does is keeps local control as the first right of refusal with the local board,” Anderson said. “If they decide not to do this, then it allows any outside group to come in with an application.”

HB 549 attracted little criticism on the floor save for one concern about a potential “conflict of interest” if local oversight of a charter school falls to an existing public school board. Supporters took the opportunity, with both bills having been heard, to point out the ways in which HB 549 addresses the constitutional and regulatory concerns voiced over the previous proposal.

Both bills passed their initial votes on the House floor — HB 549 on a bipartisan vote of 79-21 and HB 562 on a largely party-line vote of 63-37 — and must now appear before the House Appropriations Committee before a final House vote, as both would require state funding to implement. Due to an agreement among leadership, bills that have passed second reading on the House floor this week but still require an appropriations hearing will not be subject to Friday’s transmittal deadline.

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, told Montana Free Press Thursday that HB 549 and HB 562 have now made it farther in the legislative process than any previous charter school proposal in the past two decades. HB 549 is a particularly anomalous entry, representing the first charter school bill in that time to draw support from the bulk of Montana’s public education associations, including Melton’s.