Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
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Last week, a coalition of teachers, parents and state education associations brought a legal challenge against one of Montana’s two new charter school laws. The complaint laid out a string of arguments alleging that House Bill 562 violates the Montana Constitution in its use of taxpayer funds to support charters and the exemption it grants those schools from compliance with existing teacher licensing and school quality regulations.

 The lawsuit came as little surprise to anyone, and not just because one of the plaintiffs — the Montana Quality Education Coalition — announced its intentions last month. Debate over the likelihood of litigation came up throughout the bill’s bumpy road to passage in the 2023 Legislature. When HB 562 first appeared on the Senate floor during the final days of the session, a majority of the chamber resisted, voting the measure down 23-27. When they revived the issue two days later, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick acknowledged the constitutionality questions hanging over the bill.

“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,” Fitzpatrick told his Republican colleagues during a pre-vote caucus meeting April 28.

 Despite repeated warnings of the possibility of a lawsuit — one that would inevitably cost the state money — HB 562 cleared its second Senate attempt 28-22.

 The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, was less than shocked by the events of this week. Speaking with Montana Free Press last week, Vinton framed the lawsuit as an “unfortunate” but foreseeable response from HB 562’s opponents.

 “They can’t win in public opinion or at the Legislature, so they go to the courts,” she said.

 As far as the public opinion argument goes, those opponents beg to differ, pointing to the latest messaging logs on HB 562 from the Legislative Services Division: 574 public messages for, 2,030 against. Even so, lawmakers opted to take a chance on the law, as did Gov. Greg Gianforte. Now, as predicted, the question of its constitutionality falls to the third branch of Montana’s government to resolve.


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...