‘School choice,’ public charter school bills, both advance out of Senate Education

By: - April 19, 2023 9:05 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

A “community choice school” bill and legislation to expand public charter schools advanced Wednesday out of a Senate committee — along with bills to support child literacy, help the teacher shortage and revise tuition waivers for American Indian students.

The Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee also heard House Bill 913, to change the way school districts address concerns about library materials. However, it did not take action on this bill.

On the bills to open new schools, legislators voted 6-5 on House Bill 549, to expand public charter schools, and the same on House Bill 562, for “community choice school.”

Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester, joined Democrats on the committee in opposing both bills. But he said if he voted in favor of HB 562, people in his district would not re-elect him, and he pointed out non-certified teachers as one outcome and concern.

“It’s just going way too far, so I’m a ‘no’ on this for sure,” Tempel said.

Chairperson and Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, voted in favor of both bills, but offered praise for just one.

Prior to the vote, he lauded HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls. The bill expands opportunities for Montana to start public charter schools more closely within the existing public school system.

Salomon said charter schools are in Montana with various statutes that have been put in place, the bill took much work, and it overall improves the landscape for those schools.

“This will put it in a better place so they can be utilized,” Salomon said. “But the way they’re utilized in this bill I like probably the best.”

Salomon didn’t offer remarks prior to the vote on HB 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings. If he had opposed it, the bill would have died on a tied vote.

The bill is controversial because it would set up schools that use public money, but they would operate outside the traditional public education system.

Opponents say the design in the bill is unconstitutional and standards are lacking, but proponents say parents and children need more options outside the offerings of the current public education system.

After the meeting, Salomon said if the bill had died on a tied vote, it would have been “blasted” to the floor anyway — or pushed to the floor in a procedural move despite failing in committee.

His arm was twisted, he said, and to save time at this point, toward the end of the session, he agreed to support it in committee. Salomon said committee action means senators will have a chance to debate both bills on the Senate floor. Both already passed in the House.

Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, noted both bills have been flagged for constitutional questions, and passing unconstitutional bills earlier has already cost taxpayers some $2.85 million.

“(And) we’re reducing some of the standards,” Olsen said. “I just think this is a real problem.”

However, Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, said he believes the Board of Public Education would continue to supervise “all choice schools” based on the sponsor’s rebuttal to the legal note.

“I think this is a great bill,” Fuller said.

House Bill 913, School Library Materials

Sponsor Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, started out by saying HB 913 doesn’t address obscenity — a topic of some other bills — because Montana law already prohibits people from sharing obscene material with minors.

Barker also said much of the conversation about obscenity is not rooted in fact but in misinformation and hyperbole, and he has been “gravely concerned about the vitriol” in public discourse.

“My intention with this was to bring down the temperature on these conversations,” Barker said.

He said the bill sets up a way for members of the community to help develop standards for school library materials. He said it adds transparency for the treatment of new material, and it has trustees be involved in reviewing the new books.

The bill also sets up a way for parents to ask that material be removed from a school library and it provides a process for reconsideration.

On behalf of the Montana Library Association, Sam Forstag said he initially approached the bill with “trepidation” because he believes concerns about local schools are best addressed at the local level, and he also said he would still like the bill to make it harder to remove a book.

However, Forstag spoke in support of the bill as a compromise and a good way for people to know the legislature was taking action and putting a process in place for people who had concerns about a collection.

Opposing the bill, Jeff Laszloffy, with the Montana Family Foundation, said he thought it would be near impossible to get enough parents together to actually have a book removed, and it wasn’t clear how a member of the public with concerns would even get a list of contact information for other parents to gather support to get rid of a book.

On the other hand, Laszloffy said with some amendments, he might be able to support the bill.

The Office of Public Instruction also opposed the bill, which the sponsor said was a surprise to him.

Salomon said the clock is ticking on proposing amendments, and the committee might need to take up the bill, one way or the other, by Monday, possibly earlier.

In other business:

  • On a 7-4 vote, the committee passed House Bill 352, sponsored by Barker, to support voluntary targeted early literacy intervention.
  • It passed House Bill 288, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, R-Box Elder, on a 10-1 vote. The bill would make it easier for Native Americans in Montana to show they qualify for an American Indian tuition waiver. Tempel opposed it, saying his children didn’t get waivers, although he was happy Native American students received them.
  • It passed House Bill 833, also sponsored by Barker, on a 7-4 vote, to set up a teacher residency program that aims to help the teacher shortage in Montana.

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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.