House Ed advances 2 charter school bills, but one raises concerns about funding, oversight

By: - February 28, 2023 12:44 pm

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The House Education Committee advanced two bills that address charter schools in Montana — but just one is supported by “school choice” advocates.

Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, opposed the bill “school choice” proponents favored, but she also spoke to the reason she believes charter school bills were on the table at all.

“There is a section of kids that do feel ostracized,” Bertoglio said.

Friday, she voted against House Bill 562 because she said she had an issue with the way it handles taxpayers and accountability in Title 20 – education law. The bill exempts “community choice schools” from Title 20, according to a legal review by legislative staff.

Bertoglio said Montana has great educators and trustees, but children still encounter politics in schools.

“Our kids are going there to learn math, science, social studies, history, and I just really want them to not know the political affiliation of any of their staff members at the schools,” she said.

As such, Bertoglio joined Democrats last week in opposing HB 562. However, both that bill and House Bill 549, which also allows for charter schools, passed the committee and are headed to the floor.

The bills differ.

HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would operate within current education law, and an amended version passed 11-2 with bipartisan support. Republican Reps. Braxton Mitchell and Kerri Seekins-Crowe voted against it.

HB 562, sponsored by House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would establish a different framework for schools. It also passed, but with an 8-5 vote, and with Bertoglio joining Democrats in opposition.

In testimony, parents who are proponents of “school choice” rallied around HB 562, and Vinton said the Montana Family Foundation also backed her proposal. Those same parents opposed HB 549.

However, Amanda Curtis, with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, listed numerous problems with HB 562, and she said it won’t withstand scrutiny in court.

“I do not believe it will survive litigation,” Curtis said.

House Bill 549

In expanding charter school options, Rep. Anderson said HB 549 was specifically crafted to meet Montana’s constitutional requirements. It respects the authority of local school boards and local control, and it honors the state Board of Public Education, he said.

One important point Anderson said he wanted to emphasize is concerned parents who want to start a charter school must first approach their local board of trustees to see if the board will move ahead with the idea.

Montana already allows charter schools within the public education system.

Lance Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association, said both bills are complex and overlap, but HB 549 keeps “taxpayers in the driver’s seat.”

Rob Watson, with School Administrators of Montana, said Bozeman established a charter program about eight years ago when he served as superintendent there, and HB 549 would build on the state’s current approach.

“This particular bill, House Bill 549, is very close to what’s currently in administrative rule, but it expands it a little bit, which is very helpful,” Watson said.

Opponents, though, said that was the problem, that it’s much too close to the current way Montana allows charter schools to open.

They argued it wouldn’t give charter schools enough flexibility to get off the ground efficiently, and it wouldn’t allow them to operate independently either.

Chip Lindenlaub, in support of “community choice schools,” said “it breaks my heart to oppose HB 549, but I do.” He said the application process was too cumbersome and unrealistic, and few charter schools would be created as a result.

Trish Schreiber also spoke against HB 549 given its similarity to current law: “We know what that leads to. No new schools.”

Opponents included Kendra Espinoza, lead plaintiff of a successful lawsuit against the Department of Revenue that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and opened the door to more “school choice” legislation.

House Bill 562

Vinton said it’s clear that parents need more options and opportunities for their students when it comes to education, and her bill would fill the gap.

She said it would empower parents and encourage educational entrepreneurship. She said it would also allow students to use public support for their charter education.

“The ‘choice’ schools would therefore have both state and local funding, as traditional public schools do,” Vinton said.

Jessica Kirkendall, a parent from the Flathead Valley, said HB 562 is the “real ‘school choice’ bill.” She lives in a growing region, and she said it desperately needs more schools.

“Healthy competition among many school models will create better academic outcomes for all students and schools,” Kirkendall said.

However, the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools and the Montana Federation of Public Employees opposed HB 562.

Curtis, with the MFPE, listed numerous problems she saw in the bill: It doesn’t allow for publicly elected boards for the schools; it exempts teachers from licensure requirements; it excludes employees from the public pension system; it directs public funding to private, for-profit entities; and it allows corporations to come to Montana, fail, and leave outstanding debts.

“You all have passed some really, really great legislation to allow public school transformation while protecting public tax dollars,” Curtis said; she said HB 562 didn’t fit that category.

Curtis said it unconstitutionally creates a separate, parallel system of private schools that will defund the public school system.

“If you are looking to pass school choice, you will not in the end succeed with this bill,” Curtis said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.