BILLINGS – Two competing bills allowing for charter schools in Montana were heard for the first time in the Senate Education and Cultural Resources committee after passing out of the House last week.
They’re similar but contain key differences in how much they could cost and what regulations the bill would require charters to follow.
Montana is one of just a few states in the country that doesn’t allow for charter schools, and past efforts in the past to create have failed at the Legislature.
But last week, two bills, both with an unknown cost to public education, passed on to the Senate.
HB562 is sponsored by Billings’ Republican Rep. Sue Vinton. It made a final pass out of House Appropriations last week with a 59 - 33 vote.
HB549 is sponsored by Great Falls Republican Rep. Fred Anderson. It made a final pass out of House Appropriations last week as well with a 58 - 33 vote.
Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham said he would support Anderson’s version.
“I’m not opposed to any charter bills, other than the ones that, the one being sponsored by Ms. Vinton, because it doesn’t have any regulation over it,” Upham said. “Rep. Anderson’s bill, the charter school, is fine. We have a form of a charter school in our career center. It leads to innovativeness and allows for some change,” he said.
Lauren Wright is a Billings mom who is interested in opening a charter school for kids with dyslexia, such as her son Henry. They tried private school when it was time for him to go to kindergarten, but then he lost the early intervention state services he received.
“We have since switched him to public school. It’s going really well. They’ve been great to work with. They do have some resources available to him, but because of the nature of his disability, he learns a different way. His dyslexia, it’s not just difficulty learning to read. His brain processes information differently,” Wright said.
Wright wants access to state funding to create a new option for kids like Henry.
“I think having a school for kids with dyslexia would be an amazing opportunity just to make sure that they are getting those services that they need, but are also with other students who are learning the same way they are so they can stay on track with their cohort and their peers,” she said.
In early March, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 15, a public schools funding measure that added about $86 million to the state’s K through 12 BASE aid funding.
Both HB562 and HB549 would allow for charter schools to access that funding as well, with no limit on the number of schools that could be established or cap on the amount of funding that could go to the measures, according to fiscal notes attached to the bills from the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning.
This makes the cost of the measures difficult to estimate. The Montana School Board Association created a spreadsheet to show key differences between the two measures.
According to the Montana School Board Association executive director Lance Melton, HB549 would fund charter schools by allowing supplemental funding if obtained by an existing school district. He said the bill would divert money from public schools funding to pay for a charter created by a new group of applicants.
Melton said HB562 diverts all funding for new charter schools from the public schools budget. HB549 says BASE aid entitlements, the annual state funding for each school, will be paid for K-12 enrollments of at least 143, with further funding breakdowns depending on if the new charter school is an elementary, middle, or high school.
HB562 says BASE aid will be paid regardless of the school population. Current basic K-12 entitlements are about $56,000 for elementary schools, $111,000 for middle schools, and $335,000 for high schools.
The bills also differ in how charter schools would be regulated and overseen.
Melton said HB549 requires compliance with all existing laws governing public schools. HB562 provides a blanket exemption from Title 20. HB549 requires a popular election for school board trustees. HB562 provides a closed nomination and election with only parents in the school and school employees entitled to vote.
State oversight also differs between the measures. HB549 would make charter schools subject to the general supervision of the Board of Public Education. HB562 would create a new separate commission of appointed board members to oversee charter schools. The proposed board would comprise seven members appointed by members of the legislative and executive branches, including the governor, superintendent of public instruction, speaker of the house, president of the senate, and minority leadership.
Helena Democratic Rep. Melissa Romano sits on the House Education committee. She voted against both bills. She was Montana’s Teacher of the Year in 2018 and does not agree with Republicans’ call for school choice.
“This is not what the public wants. The public wants public money, going to public schools with licensed teachers who are top-notch and have accountability measures. and none of these charter schools have that,” said Romano, who lost her bid for Montana state school superintendent in 2020 to Republican Elsie Artnzen.
In a statement after the bill passed out of the House appropriations committee and on to the Senate, Romano said: "Whether or not it happens immediately, these dangerous bills will funnel unlimited amounts of public tax dollars to unregulated, unlicensed, and unaccountable "schools.'"
It’s unclear if Gianforte would sign either of these measures if they made it to his desk.
A spokesperson tells MTN the governor will carefully consider the bills in their final forms when the legislature sends them to him.
When asked if the governor would confirm which forms of school choice-related education funding he supports, MTN was referred to his education agenda for this legislative session that was announced in October.