Senate Education expected to take action on ‘school choice’ bills Wednesday

By: - April 18, 2023 7:47 pm

Illustration by Getty Images.

Tal Goldin, a lawyer with Disability Rights Montana, said a “school choice” bill would take Montana back 50 years.

That’s because it allows, “if not promotes,” students who have disabilities to be segregated, he said.

He said one section of House Bill 562 must comply with federal law. Goldin stated that a part of the bill “explicitly allows segregation on the basis of disability,” which he said likely violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

At a hearing this week, Goldin read a portion of the bill he said was illegal and code for “warehousing kids with disabilities together with kids with behavioral and academic problems.”

“We’ve been there before,” Goldin said.

Wednesday, the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee is expected to take executive action on HB562 along with a competing charter school bill, House Bill 549.

Both bills would expand opportunities for Montana to establish charter schools, but they’re different.

Sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, HB 549 would do so more within the structure of the current public school system — a significant deficiency, according to opponents calling for more educational options for students.

Those opponents are also proponents of HB 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, but it has its detractors, too.

Those detractors question whether the bill is constitutional, including in how it would use public money toward private education, but without accountability through a publicly elected board of trustees.

Both bills passed the House and are under consideration in the Senate committee.

In response to a question from Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, Vinton defended the bill against Goldin’s arguments.

She said the new schools must be open to any student residing in Montana unless they’re full, and there’s a fair system for accepting new pupils.

“There is no picking and choosing,” Vinton said.

“So, no discrimination?” Regier asked.

“There is no way I would be associated with a bill that would discriminate in any way,” Vinton replied.

Even some detractors of the bill offered praise to Vinton as a supporter of education in general. Nonetheless, opponents were adamant the bill would undercut Montana’s current public education system and funding for it.

Kellen Alger teaches public school, and he said he was so upset about the hearing, he tried to vent to his wife at home but couldn’t get any words out.

So Alger, a Helena teacher on the Jefferson Elementary roster, rolled back to the Capitol to testify against the bill. He said he couldn’t speak to its technicalities, but he denounced the attacks he heard against public school educators.

“Come see what happens in my classroom,” Alger said.

It’s not indoctrination, he said. Rather, his classroom experiences challenges and successes and innovations, and he wants legislators to see it all firsthand. So he invited them to witness his class, as he had done before.

But as the bills have made their way through the legislature, many parents have pleaded with legislators to offer more choices to students, alleging shortcomings in public school.

In support of the bill, Lisa Melina Pyron said fewer than half of Montana’s third- to eighth-graders are proficient in English and language arts, and a little more than one third are proficient in math.

“This is unacceptable. Clearly, the current system is not working for them,” Pyron said.

She asked legislators to vote for HB 562 and hold Montanans to higher standards.

“We can’t settle for the status quo. Except that we are,” Pyron said.

Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, lent support to HB 562 bill from personal experience. He said he attended public school, and he was good at school, but he didn’t like it.

“Whenever I got excited about learning something, it felt like we had to slow down. We had to wait for everyone to catch up, and I lost interest,” Bogner said.

He joined the U.S. Marines after high school, but he eventually decided to seek higher education, and he was accepted into Columbia University. But Bogner said he noticed he and other public school students were behind, and he caught up, but it took him a year.

Growing up, he said he had great teachers, but the system didn’t work for him. He said he knows other students, including ones smarter than him in high school but also unchallenged, would benefit from more options.

“This would go a great way to making sure that the students of Montana reach their full educational potential,” Bogner said.

Speaking against the bill, however, Amanda Curtis, of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, ticked off a litany of reasons she believes it’s a bad idea and even unconstitutional. She too said she’d heard a lot of “teacher bashing” during testimony.

Curtis said the bill exempts schools from teacher license requirements, for one, and it “unconstitutionally creates a parallel system of private schools” that will defund public education.

“I know we have different definitions of ‘public,’ but my definition of ‘public’ includes me being able to vote for the governance of the school if my tax dollars are going for it,” Curtis said.

In questions, Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, asked about the cost of defending the bill should it land in court, especially given the lengthy legal note raising questions about it. She asked the committee chairman if legislators could receive an estimate, and she also wondered if it would compromise federal funds.

In response to questions, Lance Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association, said a separate education lawsuit cost the state an estimated $1 million, including $500,000 it had to pay plaintiffs for their attorney fees.

He said that lawsuit was broad in scope, challenging the constitutionality of school funding, and a complaint against HB 562 would be more narrow, but he still anticipated it would run in the six figures.

Vinton, though, said legislators shouldn’t craft laws based on fears over whether people would sue. She said it was their job to write good legislation and pass it.

“This bill is not about teachers. This bill is about students,” Vinton 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.