This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
This spring, Republican lawmakers in Montana passed some of the most significant policy gains for the school choice movement in the state in decades. But, according to one of the nation’s leading promoters of conservative legislation, the Treasure State is still a C student when it comes to “education freedom.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative nonprofit that crafts model legislation with input from state lawmakers and private sector representatives — released a 50-state index of school choice policy last month. The new ALEC index based the rankings on each state’s embrace of school choice tenets including education savings accounts, charter schools and tax credits for private school scholarship donations. Montana fell in at 19th with an overall score of 50. For context, Florida — the poster child for Republican-favored education policies — topped the rankings with a score of 95. Idaho came in 8th with a score of 68.
A state judge in Helena Wednesday blocked portions of a law passed by the 2023 Legislature to create a system of charter schools — or what supporters call “community choice schools” — in Montana.
The index marked a departure from ALEC’s past method for ranking states on their education laws. Prior to 2023, the organization produced an annual report card that also weighed outside factors such as national test scores and per-pupil spending. (Montana’s most recent ranking under that model was 43rd.) Now the rankings lean exclusively on the types of policies ALEC itself has helped draft and promote through its model policy library — items like a tax exemption for church-owned properties used for homeschooling and a charter school bill that bears numerous similarities to Montana’s new community choice school law.
In fact, according to ALEC’s scoring methodology, charter school laws are one of the areas where Montana skews closest to the conservative ideal. House Bill 562, which is now partially blocked by a district court order, established a new system for authorizing charter schools and placed no cap on how many charter schools can operate in the state — provisions that won Montana a B grade in ALEC’s eyes. The organization noted that its source for scoring data was the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a prominent supporter of HB 562 last session.
Montana scored far lower in the areas of funding and open enrollment, not quite meeting ALEC’s benchmarks for making state education dollars directly available to families and allowing students to attend school in whatever district they choose. Given the regular appearance of school choice proposals and ALEC-inspired policy in Montana, those low scores could well telegraph the next round of policy battles between the school choice movement and the public school advocates who view such changes as an existential threat to the quality of Montana’s K-12 system.
Since a homeless shelter was cleared out in November just outside of the Helena city limits, new camps made up of tents and tarps have popped up within the city parks, on sidewalks and in alleyways, sparking community concerns about public safety while also highlighting the growing unsheltered crisis.
Before Tim Sheehy was the frontrunner in Montana’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the ex-Navy SEAL, aerial firefighter, millionaire business owner, part-time rancher and occasional political donor was a 2004 graduate of a Minneapolis-St. Paul area private high school who grew up in a lake house outside Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
Missoula author Debra Magpie Earling carried the seeds of a story about Sacajewea for years. When she walked away from teaching at the University of Montana, she finally made the mental space to bring it to fruition. The result is this year’s “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling talks about imagination and history with MTFP…