Late Thursday, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a pair of bills into law that establish separate and distinct charter school systems in the state — one widely embraced by Republican legislators and advocates of past charter school efforts, and the other supported by the bulk of Montana’s public education organizations as well as a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.
“Government should never stand between parents and their kid’s education,” Gianforte said in a statement emailed to Montana Free Press by his office. “We’re empowering Montana parents to choose what’s best for their family and their kids. We’re putting students and parents first in education.”
Both measures grant parents and local groups the ability to pursue the establishment of a charter school in their communities. House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, places such requests in the hands of existing local school boards, and requires charter schools to comply with the same curricular and educator licensing laws applied to traditional public schools. House Bill 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, routes requests for what it calls “community choice schools” to a new seven-member state commission, exempts those schools from the majority of existing public school regulations, and awards oversight to local boards elected by staff and parents of the schools.
Lawmakers and supporters of both bills applauded Gianforte’s approval, with several school-choice organizations that backed HB 562 in particular issuing press statements Friday. In one release, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President and CEO Nina Rees welcomed Montana as the 46th state in the nation to approve charter school legislation.
“Every parent from every state should have the options available to send their child to a high-quality public school of their choice, and we are excited that Montanan communities will finally have more options,” Rees wrote.
School choice gaining legislative traction after years of debate
Lawmakers have already advanced a pair of charter school proposals further than any point in the past decade. How are parents and teachers outside the Capitol responding to the Legislature’s embrace of school choice?
The simultaneous passage of HB 549 and HB 562 into law raises a number of questions, including whether the two systems will ultimately conflict. Advocates of both bills believe that they can coexist peacefully, as each sets out a distinct path for parents seeking establishment of a charter school to follow. Trish Schreiber, who describes herself as an education philanthropist and was a leader in the pre-session development of HB 562, told MTFP Friday that other states including New York and Colorado have experienced similar situations when competing bills on the charter school front both became law.
“It’s fine,” Schreiber said. “What happens is communities figure it out. They choose which one works best for them, and usually one of them just sort of fades away.”
Schreiber added that it will still be some time before Montana sees a charter school open its doors under either law. HB 562 — which she described as the “true choice bill” — goes into effect July 1, at which point the governor, the state superintendent and legislative leadership will begin appointing members to the new commission. Schreiber anticipates it will take a year or more for the commission to establish bylaws and complete the training necessary to start processing charter applications. That timeline, coupled with the preparations groups seeking a charter school will have to make, means it’s unlikely, in Schreiber’s view, that a new school would open in the next two academic years.
“Theoretically, if a school was already really, really organized and had their funds raised and all of that, possibly a school could open in fall of ’24,” Schreiber said. “But from what I know of the boards that are getting organized, they’re not going to be ready to open them. The soonest they would [ready] would be the fall of ’25.”
As for HB 549, Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton told MTFP Friday that it’s “feasible” to have a charter school up and running by September 2024. Any delay, he added, will depend on how quickly the Board of Public Education is able to establish its process for handling charter school requests that may be initially rejected by local school boards.
“Montana’s public schools have been innovating for years,” Melton wrote, “and House Bill 549 gives them a new focal point to organize and communicate the existence of the many alternatives and flexibilities adapted to the specific needs and interests of students and families across the state of Montana.”
In an interview with MTFP this week, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said both bills will require her office’s finance team to begin looking into a range of potential impacts on state and local budgeting for schools. Arntzen also said she’s already reached out to counterparts in other states for guidance in preparing the Office of Public Instruction for its role in assisting and overseeing charter schools, adding that she’s relieved both laws have a longer road to full implementation.
“I’m blessed that we get a year to get this to work, because if it was something we had to do in the next 120 days, it may be a poor homework assignment,” Arntzen said.
The timelines for new schools under both bills are also dependent on the answer to a more immediate question: Will either, or both, of the new laws generate a legal challenge? Prior to passing HB 549 and HB 562, lawmakers on the Senate floor raised questions about the constitutionality of the twin proposals, citing a legal note that indicated each bill could result in the creation of governing entities outside existing school boards. Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, continued to voice concerns after the Legislature’s adjournment. In a May 8 op-ed in the Laurel Outlook, he blasted HB 562 for establishing charter school boards that, at least for their first three years, are appointed rather than elected — a situation, he wrote, that renders trustees’ seats a “constitutional violation on day one.” Molnar also chastised Gianforte for pressing lawmakers to approve both bills.
“Gov. Gianforte asked the Legislature to pass these unconstitutional bills so he can have a conservative sound-bite,” Molnar wrote. “Shame on him.”
Schreiber maintained that the crafters of HB 562 took the Montana Constitution’s requirements for elected school governance into account, arguing that Molnar’s logic would also render HB 549 unconstitutional. She said it’s unlikely that the latter will be challenged in court.
If HB 549 does trigger a lawsuit, Melton said, he’s confident the law would survive the challenge. He’s also confident that HB 562, which he argues violates “a number of provisions in the Montana Constitution,” would not.
Despite the bipartisan support for HB 549, it and HB 562 continue to generate concern among some public school associations. Jenny Murnane-Butcher, deputy director of Montanans Organized for Education, told MTFP that the advocacy group is “firmly against any public dollars going to a school that isn’t represented by publicly elected trustees and that is not held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools.” Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis expressed similar criticism specific to HB 562 and House Bill 393, an education savings account bill for special-needs students that Gianforte also signed into law Thursday.
“It’s unfortunate to see that corporate lobbyists won out over Montanans,” Curtis said in a statement. “A bipartisan array of legislators came up just short of killing these unconstitutional diversions of scarce funds from our local public schools to unaccountable corporations. We’re confident these bills will be invalidated before they jack up Montanans’ property taxes, rob voters of our right to elect school boards, and sell off our kids’ [constitutional] Article X right to free, quality public schools.”
HB 393 will allow parents of special-needs students to seek state reimbursement for the costs of tutoring and other educational resources obtained outside the public school system, and funds those reimbursements by requiring districts to remit per-pupil funding associated with those students to the Office of Public Instruction.
According to a Friday announcement, Gianforte signed a slate of other education bills into law alongside HB 549, HB 562 and HB 393. Those bills were: House Bill 408, which limits the total amount of private donations a single public school district can receive through a dollar-for-dollar tax credit program; House Bill 749, which expands student eligibility and course offerings through the Montana Digital Academy; House Bill 214, which allows out-of-district students to enroll in virtual classes offered by certain schools; and House Bill 396, which allows homeschooled students and students in private institutions to enroll part-time in public schools.
“Our focus in education is and has always been advancing common-sense reforms to support teachers, empower parents, and help students reach their full potential,” Gianforte said in his announcement. “We made great progress on that this legislative session, delivering wins that will open the doors to greater opportunity for young Montanans.”
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