Charter school bills pass after reconsideration, push from Majority Leader Fitzpatrick

By: - April 28, 2023 7:32 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Republicans revived two foot-in-the-grave charter school bills on Friday and pushed them over the finish line in the Senate after Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick urged his caucus to let the courts decide their fate.

Five Republican senators who had previously voted against House Bill 562 changed their votes after the admonition from Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, in a caucus a few minutes before the motion.

“These are end-game bills. I just want to be very clear,” Fitzpatrick said.

Senators Mike Cuffe of Eureka, Bruce Gillespie of Ethridge, Mike Lang of Malta, Wendy McKamey of Great Falls, and Terry Vermeire of Anaconda voted 28-22 with the majority on second reading after having broken with their party earlier to kill the bill.

But legislators opted to reconsider it, and Senators Brad Molnar of Laurel, Walt Sales of Manhattan, Dan Salomon of Ronan, Jason Small of Busby, Russ Tempel of Chester, and Jeff Welborn of Dillon joined Democrats Friday in voting no.

Sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, HB562 exempts teachers from certification requirements and allows groups to set up private schools and use property tax dollars to fund them. The people who vote on the governing board are parents, guardians and employees, not local taxpayers.

HB562 has been characterized as the “real ‘school choice bill’” by supporters. Opponents have said it is unconstitutional, and a review by legislative attorneys found legal concerns with it and House Bill 549.

The Governor’s Office has expressed support for bills that allow private schools to tap public money to offer parents more choices. Both bills will head to his desk.

Sen. Tempel was one of the Republicans who opposed HB 562.

“We’re growing government with this thing,” Tempel said.

He said the bill wouldn’t have been in front of the Senate had it not been for procedural maneuvering.

Tempel also said legislators have been suspending rules and firing off more “blast” motions — that kick a bill out of committee even though the committee didn’t support it — than he’s seen the last three sessions.

Plus, he said the bill doesn’t allow taxpayers to oversee a school under the bill because only parents and guardians with children in the school can cast votes on its oversight.

“Us taxpayers are going to pick up the difference for those schools,” Tempel said.

But other Republicans have pushed “school choice” bills, and Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, offered himself up as a case study for why the legislation should be passed.

He wants to have a family soon, he said. He pays property taxes, and the money goes to public education. If his family chooses private school, they’ll pay tuition — but keep paying property taxes — and if they homeschool, again, they’ll still pay property taxes.

“We would love an additional option, but without this, there is no additional option,” Zolnikov said.

In opposing the bill, however, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, a Missoula Democrat, said legislators have a responsibility to be good fiscal stewards, and the bill takes away accountability.

She said it threatens the core of communities, their schools, and minimizes the integrity of public education.

“Montanans love their local schools. This bill takes that away,” O’Brien said.

Earlier, legislators voted down HB549 on an 8-42 count, and Friday under reconsideration, it passed with 27 yes votes. Sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, the bill will expand public charter schools within the existing public education system.

Republican Senators Becky Beard, Lang, Molnar, Small, Tempel and Welborn voted with Democrats against it. Beard, of Elliston, spoke in strong support of HB562.

Sen. Salomon, who chairs the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee, described HB 549 as an attempt to allow for more public charter schools in a constitutional way, although legislative legal staff had concerns with it.

He said one key difference between it and Vinton’s bill is the schools opened through HB 549 would be overseen by trustees who are elected by the district, not just by parents and guardians.

He said the bill also ensures trustees have an opportunity to address specific concerns of parents before they can open a public charter.

If a student who is already in public school decides to go to a charter under this bill, Salomon said the funding would essentially stay the same because the money would follow the student.

However, he said if private school or homeschool students then opt into the new charter, it would require new money.

“That’s where it could get expensive because that brings them to the table, into the formula,” Salomon said.

Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, had noted the significant amount of taxpayer money that’s already gone to defending unconstitutional bills in speaking against HB 562.

Olsen said that money is being taken away from local schools.

“I think we need to take it really seriously that we have so much disregard for the Constitution now that we had to pay, I believe it was ($3.85 million) in back pay for all of the unconstitutional bills we passed last session,” Olsen 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.