Front facade of the Montana State Capitol building, showcasing its neoclassical architecture with ornate detailing, large pillars, and the word 'MONTANA' engraved above the entrance, set against a cloudy sky.
The Capitol building in Helena, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

UPDATE May 1, 2023: The Senate approved both charter school bills on final votes Saturday, each on a count of 27-21. Republican Sens. Brad Molnar, Jason Small, Russ Tempel and Jeff Welborn joined the full Democratic caucus in opposing both. Republican Sens. Becky Beard and Mike Lang voted against House Bill 549, while Republican Sens. Walt Sales and Dan Salomon voted against House Bill 562. The proposals now pass to Gov. Greg Gianforte, who has thus far declined to publicly take a position on the bills.

Two days after rejecting a pair of charter school proposals, the Montana Senate revived both on Friday, passing the bills on nearly identical preliminary votes and breathing new life into one of the session’s biggest education policy debates.

During a Republican caucus meeting just prior to Friday’s votes, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls told conservative colleagues that House Bill 549 and House Bill 562 were among a handful of “endgame bills.” He acknowledged that some senators may not like the two charter school proposals, “but the House does, and they want them as part of an endgame.” 

“From my point of view, on charter schools, we need to get these issues resolved,” Fitzpatrick said, before focusing his comments on the constitutional questions raised in a fiscal note on HB 562 specifically. “We should pass the bill, let the court decide whether it’s valid or not, because this issue’s going to come around forever and ever and ever. Why not resolve it now?”

In the caucus meeting and on the Senate floor, lawmakers attempted to clarify the key distinctions between the two bills. Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, rose first to reintroduce HB 549, which he stressed places charter schools under the general supervision of the Board of Public Education and locally elected school board trustees. Salomon detailed the charter application and approval process laid out in the proposal, and corrected a misstatement he’d made during the Senate’s initial debate on the bill Wednesday, noting that HB 549’s prohibition on charter schools in Montana’s smallest districts means there are roughly 200 districts in which charters could be pursued.

“When it comes to the students, if they were in a public system, it does not cost the state any more money,” Salomon said, speaking to the potential increased cost to taxpayers for per-pupil state funding. “If these were private school students or homeschooled students, that’s where it could get expensive, because that brings them to the table, into the [funding] formula, and each year they will be counted again.”

The discussion on HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, ended there, and the Senate approved the bill on a 27-23 vote. Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, then reintroduced HB 562, which calls for the establishment of a new state commission to review and approve applications for “community choice” schools. Those schools would be overseen initially by a founding board, with school employees and parents directed to elect a replacement board within three years. Bogner also countered earlier criticism that the charter approach proposed in HB 562 — which exempts schools from compliance with existing public school curriculum and educator regulations — lacks the degree of accountability offered in HB 549.

“There is annual reporting for performance accountability, and every five years community choice schools reapply for a charter,” Bogner said. “If a community school violates that charter, it can be immediately revoked. If community choice schools do not meet the goals of their charter, they will not be renewed. There is a rigorous process here.”

The ensuing debate over HB 562 was far more robust. A mix of Democrats and Republicans argued that the proposal, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, threatens to undermine the public school system, increase the size of government and cost the state not only in public funding to new charters but in likely litigation over the bill’s constitutionality. Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, characterized it as a “tough day” for Montana students and families alike, while Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, cautioned that despite a session punctuated by concerns from constituents about rising property taxes, a “yes” vote on HB 562 threatened to “jack them up.”

A string of Republicans countered that HB 562’s revival marked a “great day” for Montana, presenting the Senate with a chance to give parents and students greater choice in the type of education they receive. Sen. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, said remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic gave parents a first-hand look at how their children were being taught in public schools, adding that not all of them liked what they saw. She argued that lawmakers should “celebrate this additional option to raise our children in the way that we see fit as their parents.”


Senate votes down dueling charter school bills

Public education advocates and charter school proponents alike have wondered for weeks which of dueling charter school bills the Legislature would advance to Gov. Greg Gianforte. The Senate’s rejection of both Wednesday may be the final answer.

Her position was echoed by others including Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, and Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, with the latter citing low student proficiency data directly from the Office of Public Instruction’s website to make the case that “we need to come up with a different system for education.” Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, went further, stating that parental involvement is “the No. 1 ingredient” to student success — an ingredient he thinks would be bolstered by parent-initiated charter schools.

“This bill provides a mandatory participatory rate for parents,” Fuller said. “Practically speaking, it does. What a concept to have, to have parents involved in the education of their children.”

Fuller also pushed back on the argument that HB 562 is unconstitutional, a question raised in the bill’s legal note. He and other supporters said it isn’t the job of lawmakers to make such a legal determination, and encouraged their fellow senators to give the proposal a try regardless of the potential for litigation. But that very possibility is what prompted Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, to frame HB 562 as a challenge to the oath of office he swore to uphold in the Legislature.

“My oath of office is not to send it to the courts. It’s to pass legislation that is as constitutional as I can make it. That’s all it is,” Molnar said. “Sen. Beard wants this to go forward? I’m not disagreeing. I know Sen. Zolnikov does. Forward to what? The Montana Supreme Court will have this in the recycle bin in one minute.”

HB 562 passed its initial vote on the Senate floor 28-22. 


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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...