Bill pitches public charter schools

Rep. McKamey: ‘We already have charter schools’

Photo illustration by Steven Depolo (CC BY SA 3.0)
Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, proposed a bill to set up public charter schools in Montana. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, pitched a bill to allow public charter schools in Montana and give parents and students flexibility — but other lawmakers and opponents said the state already has a way to set up public charter schools, and it’s working well.

Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, repeatedly quizzed Hill and other supporters of House Bill 633 on the argument the public school system was inflexible. She said a couple of bills that passed last session offer Montanans many educational options.

In fact, at least 25 places in the state have chartered education, McKamey said. Bridger Charter Academy in Bozeman was one example of a school that came up in a House Education Committee hearing Wednesday, as was Paris Gibson Education Center in Great Falls. Plus, the state has chartered programs.

Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, said Montana already allows public charter schools. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

“It’s perfectly flexible and feasible. Do you see that?” McKamey asked.

In the hearing, supporters of the bill touted it as one more proposal this session that will give students and families “school choice” and a way to serve students who aren’t thriving in the public schools. Proponents said the bill would give parents freedom, catch students who have fallen through the cracks, and create healthy competition between schools that would increase academic outcomes for everyone. 

“I don’t want to belabor the point here, folks, but Montanans like choice,” said Austin Knudsen, who carried a similar bill as a legislator before being elected attorney general in 2020.

This year, “school choice” bills have been moving ahead in the legislature. Montana Family Foundation’s Jeff Laszloffy said maybe the third time will be the charm for HB633. The committee did not take action Wednesday, but Melina Pyron said she generally was excited about the “terrific bills” supporting education in Montana this year.

“What a great session,” Pyron said at the beginning of her testimony.

Opponents, however, said the bill is riddled with shortcomings and saddles taxpayers with higher costs.

For example, it could add $321,000 in public cost for each new high school in the state, according to the Montana School Boards Association. At the same time, it would take away a requirement that schools teach students with special needs or pay employees prevailing wages, according to the Montana Federation of Public Employees. And it would remove minimum teacher licensing standards, according to the Montana Board of Public Education.

“It’s my understanding that we wouldn’t want anyone off the street coming into our homes to do plumbing,” said McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education. “Nor should we expect someone without any kind of educator preparation to teach our children in our public schools, even if that is a public charter school.”

Monica Berner argued public schools are falling short for a portion of students, maybe 20 percent. She said Montana would benefit from the approach of Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative, growing across the country, or from other unique models.

When her daughter, Grace, was heading into kindergarten, her preschool teacher suggested her daughter be tested because she might be eligible for first grade given her ability to read and count, Berner said. But she said the public school principal and teacher dismissed that idea.

The preschool teacher insisted Berner look harder, so she turned to a private school. There, Berner said the educators first tested Grace, and upon seeing results, they suggested she be placed in first grade.

When her daughters hit junior high, she said they transferred to public school in order to participate in extracurricular sports, music and arts. But she said the public schools did not offer them enough academically.

“They were far ahead of their peers in their classes,” Berner said.

Chip Lindenlaub, another supporter, said the bill offers parents freedom. Parents already can choose where their children shop or watch movies or eat lunch, he said, but they don’t have similar choices in education.

“They have very little say in the most important issue for a child, which is where will you go to school?” Lindenlaub said.

Several representatives from Montana’s education associations argued against the bill, but they weren’t the only opponents. Kim Mangold, with the Montana Farmers Union, said students who attend rural schools in Montana are a vulnerable population.

Rural schools are critical to the largest farming and ranch organization in the state, Mangold said: “These schools are the lifeblood of rural Montana.”

“This act has the potential to remove resources from public schools, especially rural public schools, that are important to farm and ranching today,” Mangold said.

Lance Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association, explained the potential costs to both state coffers and local property taxpayers given the “technically flawed way” the bill was written. In short, he said it would require an elementary charter school with even just one pupil to receive $53,000, or a high school with just one student to receive $321,000.

If every Class I and II district in the state was converted into a series of public charter schools of 200 students each, the bill would end up costing the state of Montana $350 million — an estimated 25 percent on top of the money already going to fund all K12 public education, he said.

“You’d have a nice little gift-wrapped surprise when you arrived in the next legislative session if and when this was to occur,” Melton said of the extra costs.

He said local property taxpayers would be required to pick up 30 percent of the cost of the charters without any voting authority, and the state would have to allocate 70 percent.

By contrast, if a public charter school is opened under the current system, the school district where it opens would receive the same total amount of money it is normally allocated, he said, and there would be no increased cost to the state.

Melton also argued the legislation violates the rights of taxpayers, voters, and students and families. And he said it wipes out Title 20 and its protections for students, such as freedom from bullying.

“This bill proposes to take everything you’ve worked on in this session and toss it in the garbage as it applies to charter schools,” Melton said.

A legal review of the bill notes a potential constitutional conflict. It said the bill exempts public charter schools from the Board of Public Education’s teacher certification requirements.

“As drafted, HB 633 establishes a separate system for public charter schools to be supervised by a new public charter school commission,” said the legal note.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”