BILLINGS — With a pen stroke from the governor, the word is out—Montana will be open for charter schools.
Montana was one of five states in the country without a charter school law on the books, but that recently changed as Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law a pair of bills paving the way for charter schools to come to Montana. Those laws will take effect July 1.
Already pro-charter school groups are eyeing parts of the state to set up the alternative public school model, especially in Montana's largest cities and their surrounding areas.
"The areas that have really been, I would say, the most proactive with parents and people interested in doing this have been the Flathead, the Bozeman area, Missoula and Billings," said Trish Schreiber, a volunteer with Community Choice Charter Schools for Montana, a group that's been pushing the state to join the charter school movement for year.
"It really should be looked at as a complement to our public offerings, not as competition," said Schreiber. "We need to remember all of these students are Montanans. They're the exact same students. We should love and protect them and give them as many choices as we possibly can."
Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that are part of public school districts but are exempt from certain state and district rules and regulations. Two bills passed during the 2023 Montana Legislative Session and signed by Gianforte establish different frameworks that allow charter schools to operate in Montana. Under HB 562, carried by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Lockwood, charter schools would be exempt from Title 20 of Montana law, which establishes curriculum requirements and teacher licensing requirements, among a broad swath of educational policies.
For these reasons and more, charter schools appeal to some parents but are also controversial.
"They have an awful lot of latitude to do what they do, what they want to do, the way they want to do it," said Dennis Parman, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association.
Criticism around the country ranges from admission practices to test scores. Some Montana educators worry about charter schools pulling funding from the public school system.
“If they're a charter school operating within a school district boundary, and the students that attend that charter school, they would be included in the enrollment of the resident public school only for the purpose to generate funding at the state level that would be diverted from the state to the public school, but diverted to the charter school," said Parman. "So it's all state funding. There are no local taxes, property taxes, that would be used.”
Under the new model in Montana, charter schools are free for students and will get public funding to operate.
A fiscal note on HB 562 allocates about $400,000 per year from the general fund to go to charter schools beginning in 2025, along with a per-pupil amount of money that will be given to a charter school instead of a public school if the student enrolls there.
The fiscal note lists that amount to be about $6,300 per elementary student and about $8,000 per high school student, with slight yearly increases to account for inflation.
The school size and grade level will also determine how much money they receive from the state.
Parman questions the estimated costs of operation as detailed in the bill.
"The fiscal note for HB562 indicated that for an elementary school of, let's say, 100 students, they would probably have a budget of somewhere around $650,000. I went and looked at the OPI budget information that is available, and there's a couple of elementary schools that have enrollments of about 100 students. And one of those elementary schools has a budget of $720,000, and the other one has a budget of just over $1 million," Parman said. "So the question becomes, how do you operate a charter school for that funding level of $650,000 when the public schools with the same enrollment they couldn't do what they do for that amount?"
Schreiber said she expects as they get operating, charter schools will have to return to the Montana Legislature to request more money, but they will remain free for students to attend.
“But the assumption is that philanthropy is really how these schools are going to make up the difference and that's what's happened nationwide," said Schreiber. "Forty-five other states, DC, Puerto Rico and Guam have all figured out how to run charter schools with less funding and matching it with philanthropy. And I truly believe that the people of Montana can figure this out too.”
Parman said more than half of Montana school districts are classified as rural school districts, but where charter schools will likely find footing is in large and intermediate 'Level 2' school, which Parman describes as districts that serve populations of at least 1,000 residents.
"This would be Lockwood, Columbus, Park City, Shelby, Cut Bank, Manhattan, and many more," Parman said.
Schreiber says she has already heard interest from parents and groups in different areas of Montana to set up charter schools and the focus areas of education differ.
"The most common one that has been coming from all areas has been that people have a lot of interest in having a public option that is an American classical school," said Schreiber. "I think just going back to what's tried and true is very attractive to parents, and they really want to have that kind of an education."
A few charter schools already operate in Montana on a small and limited scale, but any charter schools coming in under the new law have a long road to get here.
"I think we're looking at probably two years at the soonest, but likely three to four years before we see any schools open. And that would be terrific," Schreiber said. "That's pretty standard. Usually the first four or five that go in a state take up to 10 years to even happen.”
But Parman advises any interested group to wait as a court challenge could be coming down soon.
“Anyone that's interested in starting a charter school is probably best advised to wait and see whatever legal challenges might arise. And what might be the outcome of those," said Parman.
The text for HB 562 and its associated fiscal note can be found here.