During a routine press conference last Thursday, Gov. Greg Gianforte made a familiar pitch for Montana’s public school system. He spoke of enhancing trade-based education opportunities, of individualizing the classroom experience for K-12 students, and of modernizing instruction through the expansion of online courses. The comments reflected long-standing priorities for his administration, an agenda that’s currently playing out during the 2023 Legislature.
Yet when it came to one of the biggest questions hanging over education policy during the session, Gianforte deflected. With lawmakers debating two separate proposals to establish either public or non-public charter schools in the state, he declined to take a position on which he might support.
“We know as parents that every child is different, and having more options and choice in education is a good thing,” the governor said. “The goal in education has to be to help every child reach their full potential.”
To date, House Bill 549 and House Bill 562 have followed parallel paths through the Legislature. Many of their most significant moments — hearings in the House Education Committee, votes on the House floor — occurred within minutes or hours of each other, and both now await their first debates in the Senate. While there’s much in the details for lawmakers to consider, the key distinction between the two bills can be easily summed up: HB 549 proposes a charter school system subject to the same oversight and regulations as Montana’s existing public schools; HB 562 offers one that would operate outside those boundaries. Both are currently scheduled for hearings before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee April 17.
Already those two bills have made it further in the legislative process than other charter school proposals in recent years. Last session’s effort — House Bill 633 — fueled a spirited committee hearing but never made it to the House floor. This time around, the voices of longtime in-state advocates for charter schools have been amplified by lobbying efforts from national school choice interests, namely the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which spent roughly $6,000 in the first third of the session supporting HB 562 and opposing HB 549.
“The passage of HB 562 signals that Montana is ready to provide more public education options to families and educators,” Todd Ziebarth, the alliance’s senior vice president of state support and advocacy, said in an email shortly after the House approved the bill. “We urge the Senate to support charter school legislation that will provide parents and students more high-quality public school options that are held accountable for academic results and held responsible to Montana taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, state organizations including the Montana School Boards Association (MTSBA) and the School Administrators of Montana have rallied behind HB 549, arguing that it presents the most pragmatic and accountable answer to Montana’s ongoing charter school dispute. The bill has also elicited support from a slice of the House’s Democratic caucus. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen staked out ground on both sides of the fence during a House Education Committee hearing in February, appearing in support of both bills and describing herself as a “proponent for our students.”
“Of these two opportunities for choice, which one is the one that promotes the best success for our students?” Arntzen asked committee members. “That would be the question I would query.”
As lawmakers continue to wrestle with that dilemma, parents and educators in Montana are crafting strong opinions of their own about where the current debate over charter schools, and school choice more broadly, should lead. Some view the issue as a matter of freedom, others a matter of funding. Ultimately, though, their take on which approach is best hinges on one question: How will the Legislature’s decision serve the interests of Montana’s students?
CHOICE SCHOOLS OR CHARTERS
Adryann Baldwin loves the homeschool atmosphere. The Belgrade mother of six has taken the lead in the education of all her children, an experience that’s given her the freedom to customize their instruction while allowing them to participate in extracurriculars such as local sports associations. It’s a role that, with one high school senior and one sophomore still at home, is nearing an end, and she considers herself lucky that her family has been able to walk that path on a single income.
But given the price of homeschool curricula and the soaring cost of living in the Gallatin Valley, it’s also a path she sees as extremely challenging for younger generations. And that, she told Montana Free Press in an interview, is one of the reasons she’s followed the Legislature’s school choice discussions so closely.
“We’ve done without that second income for 25 years or something like that,” Baldwin said. “Not every family can do that. So the idea of being able to send your kids to a publicly funded community choice school, it is the sweet spot where parents can feel confident they’ve chosen a school that’s going to customize an education for their child and they’re not going to have to live in a hut on the side of the road to make it happen.”
Baldwin is firmly in the HB 562 camp, drawing a hard line between charter schools and what that proposal dubs “community choice schools.” She argues the latter offers more flexibility for educators and a stronger voice for parents in how their children learn. In short, she said, the approach proposed by HB 562’s sponsor — Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings — creates schools with “a bit more autonomy” than what Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, has suggested in HB 549.
Under HB 549, an existing public school board would field any request from parents or community members to establish a local charter school. Trustees would have the option to implement changes in the public school that address those concerns, or greenlight the petition. If a board denies a request, the people behind it could take the issue to the Montana Board of Public Education for potential approval. The charter schools envisioned in HB 549 would fall under the jurisdiction of either the existing board or a newly established and locally elected one.
Baldwin and other HB 562 proponents balk at the notion of granting public school boards what they call the “right of first refusal.” Chip Lindenlaub, who lives south of Darby, told MTFP he struggles to see the difference between a traditional public school and a charter school approved by the current overseers of public education.
“Their goal typically is to enforce standards and uniformity and ensure that the schools are conforming with the rules that are established,” Lindenlaub said of the Board of Public Education. “So they’re less likely, in my opinion, to allow innovative, creative charter schools.”
As a member of a group looking to petition for a community choice school in the Bitterroot Valley, Lindenlaub prefers the tack taken by Vinton this session, which gives community members the ability to strike out on their own and create a school to fit their criteria. Those schools would be approved by a new seven-member commission appointed by various statewide elected officials and overseen by a self-selected founding board until an election can be held by school employees and parents of enrolled students.
As a six-year trustee on the Helena School Board and immediate past president of MTSBA, Luke Muszkiewicz has a vastly different take. Rather than a “conflict of interest,” as one Republican lawmaker argued on the House floor, Muszkiewicz said the authority granted to existing school boards in HB 549 “allows me to sleep at night.” He disagrees with the insinuation that public schools aren’t innovative in how they educate children, and feels that operating within the current structure is essential to ensure that charter schools live up to Montana’s promise of a free quality education for all.
“I’m a volunteer elected by my fellow citizens within our public school district, and, the way I think about my job at a fundamental level, is it’s my job to make sure that the public school is delivering the quality education that our community expects us to,” Muszkiewicz said. “If I do that, I probably have a good chance of getting reelected. If I fail in doing that, I’m probably not going to be elected.”
Muszkiewicz added that under existing regulations, public school boards already have the power to authorize charter schools, and some have — most recently in Bozeman, where trustees last month renewed the Bozeman Charter School for another three years. And, he continued, “there are many more districts that actually operate alternative programs already that really fill the need envisioned by charter school proponents.” Asked what considerations he, as a trustee, would take into account in reviewing a request under HB 549, Muszkiewicz hypothesized a scenario involving a trade-based charter petition and ran through his list.
“Do we have the land? Do we have the buildings? Do we have the staff? Do we need to run a bond? Do we need to run a levy? Do we need to seek some grant funding? Do we have the right relationships with local area businesses who are going to provide the mentorship and ultimately employ these students after they graduate?”
ACCOUNTABILITY AND COMPETITION
Another key divergence in the charter school debate is the question of what, if any, rules will govern the hiring of teachers and the selection of curriculum. HB 549 has attracted the support of public school associations — or, in the case of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, a notable lack of opposition — precisely because it seeks to apply current state laws and regulations to such decisions. Educators would have to meet the same licensing requirements as their peers in public schools. Instruction would be ruled by the same curricular standards, and schools would be assessed using the same accreditation metrics.
For Lynne Rider, a sixth-grade math teacher at Kalispell Middle School, requiring schools to meet an established set of standards is critical in holding them accountable for the students they serve. Such safeguards are particularly important when it comes to teacher quality, she said, and she’s concerned by the prospect of a charter school where educators aren’t held to Montana’s certification and training expectations.
“Without oversight and quality standards and the rigors of the curriculum, I think our students are going to lose out,” Rider told MTFP. “They’re not going to have those critical-thinking skills. If I look at our special-ed population specifically, we really have oversight and planning and documentation and execution for each of those students’ specific needs. Without that, are their needs going to be met?”
Mike Kenison shares in the fear that students will be on the losing end of state policy if accountability measures aren’t included. Kenison teaches construction at East Middle School in Butte and serves on the boards of both MFPE and the AFL-CIO. He argued that unregulated choice schools could, in theory, turn certain students away and wouldn’t necessarily be able to offer those who are enrolled the types of instruction that public schools have spent decades building and refining.
“We offer so many different programs for students that include art, music, construction, cooking, different things like that,” Kenison said. “Charter schools, even the bills that they have in the Legislature right now, would never be able to provide those services to kids. The difference in Montana I look at is public education is free and everybody can get it. A charter school, that is not how it works.”
The accountability critique is one that Vinton tried to nullify before the House Appropriations Committee last month. The representative told members that HB 562 ultimately leaves the determination of a community choice school’s success or failure up to the parents. If schools aren’t doing a good job, Vinton posited, “then parents won’t want to send their children there.”
Lindenlaub, who testified remotely in favor of HB 562 at the same hearing, expanded on that same point in speaking with MTFP. Not only would community choice schools have to live up to the expectations of parents, he said, but they would also have to answer to the oversight commission established in the bill.
“That’s the beauty of charter schools,” Lindenlaub continued. “The intent is that they get relief from some of the rules, and in exchange for that relief, they’re held to a higher standard of accountability — that being they need to outperform the traditional public school and they need to live up to their contract.”
The exemption from established state-level curriculum requirements in HB 562 is precisely what caught Emily Scofield’s attention. She’s a public school teacher of 15 years in Montana and told MTFP that her two children have had markedly different experiences in the public school system. One is thriving academically, Scofield said, but, after deciding that the other’s needs weren’t being met, she transferred that child to a one-room school where fewer students meant more direct teacher interaction. Experience has shown her that every student learns differently, and a traditional classroom might not always be the answer. To her, the charter approach offers greater flexibility to tailor curriculum and teaching style to individual students.
“Charter schools are kind of the way for the government to empower people with greater academic choices, allowing them to facilitate the best education experience for their children,” Scofield said. “That’s one of the things I’ve seen as a public school teacher, is we need to provide kids with other options of learning. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of category anymore.”
THE FUNDING DIVIDE
Arguably the toughest nut to crack in the Legislature’s debate over school choice is how lawmakers intend to fund it. Charter school advocates take a hard line in defense of using existing education dollars to pay for such efforts, as both HB 562 and HB 549 propose. But in public school circles, any move to divert funding away from the existing system is met with extreme caution, if not outright opposition.
Rider doesn’t have to look far to explain why. She notes that in Kalispell, state education funding accounts for only about 80% of her district’s budget. The other 20% comes from local money raised through taxes, and while voters have been broadly supportive of requests for elementary school increases, Rider said similar asks on the high school side don’t always elicit such a positive response. Inadequate funding could mean the difference between offering an extracurricular activity or after-school music program, or cutting such items. In other words, any conversation that could impact the district’s finances is one Rider doesn’t take lightly.
“We are a music-supporting community. We support athletics … We educate the whole child,” Rider said. “Those are things that also I could see being cut because the school district stipend budget, it would be one of those line items that could, and might have to be, taken away just so the basic curriculum standards are met.”
Dean Jardee, president of the Montana Parent Teacher Association, agrees. He’s not against charter schools in concept, he said. But if Montana lawmakers and citizens decide that’s the way to go, and opt to divert taxpayer money to do so, it’s essential that those schools “play by the same rules” as their traditional public counterparts.
“I’m all about parents and kids having choices,” Jardee said. “But I also think that our local school boards and our local public education systems have those policies and procedures in place for parents to be able to go and communicate that and advocate for that [choice]. Instead of having a charter school, why not work to put someone on the school board that’s going to effect change, or why not get into the classroom with the kids and the teachers and effect change that way?”
HB 549 appears to have sidestepped that particular issue by virtue of making its proposed charters public, but HB 562 continues to draw fire. The freedom from public school regulations that supporters applaud has sparked concern among opponents that public funds will end up in the hands of private, for-profit charter organizations. If and when that happens, said MFPE President Amanda Curtis, whose group represents the majority of public school teachers in the state, Montana will likely find itself once again facing a lawsuit over the adequacy of state funding for public education.
“The Legislature is required to fund a free quality public education for every kid,” Curtis said. “[House Bill] 562 will defund Montana’s current public school system to a point where they are not meeting their constitutional mandate.”
Curtis and fellow public education supporters have extended their argument to two other school choice proposals this session, also carried by Vinton: House Bill 393, which would allow parents of students with special needs to utilize state funds for private curriculum and tutoring, and is currently in the Senate; and House Bill 408, which would increase the cap on tax credits for contributions to public school programs and private school scholarships, and passed an initial vote on the Senate floor Friday. The latter does seek to address bipartisan concerns about the equitable distribution of public school donations after nearly half of the $2 million raised in January 2022 went to a single district in Big Sky. Efforts by Democrats to apply similar sideboards to private scholarship donations have been unsuccessful.
As for HB 393, opponents are standing firm on their position that pulling per-pupil funding from districts for individual parental use is unacceptable, and a legal note prepared by the Legislative Services Division says the bill may raise multiple constitutional issues. But for many people in the school choice corner, there’s a strong belief that education funding should follow a child to their best instructional option. Adryann Baldwin said that as a homeschooling parent, her curriculum choices were often driven by the family budget, and she wonders where the financial side of the conversation might lead if lawmakers embrace school choice this session.
“If there is an allotment for the community choice schools, could there also be an allotment — even a fraction, even a fraction of an allotment — for those homeschooling students to allow their parents to set up their classroom with technology like computers and laptops, [with] curriculum, or even opportunities for travel, education abroad, that kind of thing,” Baldwin said.
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