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Montana education group files suit against state superintendent over charter schools

Posted at 10:39 PM, Mar 29, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-01 10:40:33-04

Montana's top education official is the target of a lawsuit for allegedly interfering with the opening and operation of 19 new public charter schools across the state.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition (MQEC) and the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) have different interpretations of a charter school law, House Bill 549, passed in the last legislative session.

The coalition filed a lawsuit on Thursday against state superintendent of public instruction Elsie Arntzen and the OPI, arguing the approvals are unnecessary roadblocks.

The complaint states: “The (Public Charter School Act) does not assign any responsibility of approval of the public charter schools to the Office of Public Instruction or to the superintendent of public instruction.”

MTN reached out to Arntzen on Friday, who was not available and issued a written statement about the MQEC complaint.

“As a constitutional conservative, I am being attacked because I have stood up for Montana parents, families, and taxpayers, not special interest,” Arntzen said. “This is politically motivated from a bureaucratic group that is funded by taxpayer dollars with no accountability. While this group wastes time and Montanan’s money suing my office, I will continue to focus on delivering results for our Montana students. I will not waste time participating in childish rhetoric. My office will continue to follow the law and use our precious taxpayer dollars to put Montana students and parents first.”

Many education leaders in Montana are already gearing up for next fall as the state gets set to open Montana's first public charter schools.

"It's an extremely crucial time for them to get started,” said Doug Reisig, MQEC executive director. “Many of them have been moving up to this point. And now we have this hiccup in the road."

That hiccup according to Reisig, is a new set of approvals now required from the state county superintendents and county commissions that some, like Reisig, argue was never the legislature's intent with regard to public charter schools.

"There's nothing in the law that says that OPI can put in additional opening requirements," said Reisig.

In a letter to the Board of Public Education, last week, she stated:

“The preopening process must “ensure that each school meets all building, health, safety, insurance, and other legal requirements for school opening.” § 20-6-806(8), MCA. Because HB 549 did not change or waive the legal requirements, the Board may make a policy (or rule) to change those requirements. The Office of Public Instruction (OPI) will follow either the existing legal requirements for school opening in Title 20, Chapter 6, Part 5 or will follow a Board policy (or rule) establishing a public charter school opening process. § 20-3-106(30), MCA.”

She also referenced her letter during the Board of Public Education meeting on Monday.

“We don't want to do anything that is going to challenge their request,” Arntzen said about the OPI and the proposed charter schools. “We want to have this done in a timely manner. We want to make sure that letter of the law is followed.”

The coalition argues Arntzen’s role in implementing the law should be minimal.

Both the OPI and the MQEC indicate that the charter schools will open next school year.