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A new autonomous state commission established by one of Montana’s recently passed charter school laws is beginning to take shape this month, even as a district court judge in Helena weighs whether to block the law’s implementation.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte named Cathy Kincheloe of Whitefish and Trish Schreiber of Helmville as his appointments to the seven-member Community Choice School Commission, which will be tasked with authorizing and overseeing new charter schools under House Bill 562. According to Gianforte’s announcement, each appointee has roughly 20 years of experience in education — Kincheloe teaching and managing charter schools in other states, and Schreiber as an educational therapist for students with learning challenges. Schreiber is also a senior education fellow at the Helena-based Frontier Institute, a self-described “free market think tank,” and helped craft HB 562 ahead of the 2023 Legislature.

“I worked really hard on this legislation, so it’s pretty cool to see it come into form at this point,” Schreiber told Montana Free Press Tuesday. “More than anything I’m just feeling grateful for the trust the governor is putting in me to help build this committee with these other members. It’s super exciting to consider the variety of choice schools that are going to develop around the state and offer something different and unique for the communities that want to participate.”

Gianforte’s commission picks came just days after state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen started soliciting applications for her one appointment. Legislative leaders have also been submitting their own selections — each party’s House and Senate leaders get one — to the state Board of Public Education, which will have general supervision over the commission. Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, told MTFP Tuesday that he’s named Emily Hessler, a math teacher at Bozeman High School and the Bridger Charter Academy, as his appointee. 


According to a spokesperson, Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, has appointed former eight-term Republican state lawmaker Dee Brown of Hungry Horse to the commission. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said she’d selected Kathryn Wright, who heads the Montessori classroom at Helena’s Smith Elementary School, because Wright “understands that you can have the kind of innovation we want in public education while still being accountable.” House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and a spokesperson for his office did not immediately respond Tuesday to messages asking about Regier’s commission appointment.

HB 562, which was sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, requires that the choice school commission collectively have “substantial experience and expertise” in the areas of business, finance, education, management, board governance and philanthropy. The sole criteria for individual appointees is that they demonstrate “understanding of and commitment to choice schools as a strategy for strengthening public education.” Once established, the commission is tasked with establishing and overseeing the funding necessary to approve choice school contracts and with producing annual reports about authorizing activity. The commission also has the authority to approve charter applications across the state and to consider appeals of contracts denied by existing public school boards, which can themselves apply to authorize local contracts for what HB 562 calls a “choice school.”

The bill triggered an intense debate this spring between school choice advocates and public school associations over its use of state funding for the schools it creates and the exemption it grants those schools from compliance with existing state education laws. Those same concerns are now fueling a lawsuit challenging HB 562’s constitutionality. Plaintiffs in the case include the Montana Quality Education Coalition and more than half a dozen individual teachers and parents, who have jointly requested that the law be temporarily blocked while litigation proceeds. Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Chris Abbott has yet to issue a ruling on that request, but questioned both sides about the timing of HB 562’s implementation during a hearing earlier this month.

Before a choice school can open its doors under HB 562, members of the new commission must be appointed, adopt bylaws and conduct a review of any charter applications that come their way. Supporters and critics of the bill agree that, given the time needed to implement those steps, the earliest any choice school might feasibly begin operating would be fall 2024. 

At the Aug. 11 hearing, Judge Abbott asked whether it would be better to halt the bill’s implementation while litigation proceeds or to forge ahead with a speedy trial while the choice school groundwork is laid. Upper Seven Law’s Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, representing the plaintiffs, argued that failing to hit pause on HB 562 would likely result in a diversion of public education funding to the choice school system — one of the major concerns plaintiffs have with the legislation to begin with. Assistant Attorney General Alwyn Lansing, in the state’s defense, countered that any delay in establishing the commission will push the potential opening date for any new choice schools back considerably, impacting students who might opt to attend those schools. 

Speaking with MTFP about the commission appointments Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Flowers and House Minority Leader Abbott both said their selections would bring valuable insight to the management of new choice schools, but stood by their broader opposition to HB 562 as reflected in their “no” votes this spring.

This story was updated Aug. 30, 2023, to clarify the commission’s role and authority in approving choice school contracts.


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...