Montana school districts' charter school proposals move forward

Charter School Application
Posted at 6:30 PM, Nov 02, 2023

HELENA — Nov. 1 marked the deadline for the first round of charter school applications under a new Montana law, and the state received 26 proposals for new charters. Now, the Montana Board of Public Education will be tasked with going through the applications and deciding which will move forward.

House Bill 549, one of two charter school bills passed during the 2023 Montana legislative session, allowed local school districts the opportunity to submit applications to open charter schools. For this first year, the applications were made available at the end of September, giving them just over a month to turn in their proposals.

Altogether, 13 school districts submitted charter proposals – with several districts, like Billings, Helena and Kalispell, proposing multiple separate programs.

“It looks like those largest districts really went to town with a lot of different ideas and a lot of different proposals,” said Tim Tharp, who chairs the Board of Public Education. “So it's going to be very interesting to see what sort of things that they're proposing.”

The proposals cover a wide range of programs. They include several online or distance-learning programs, charters focused on increased flexibility in instruction and scheduling, and more specialized programs – like a “multilingual academy” in Billings and Great Falls’ CORE Charter, intended to help train new teachers.

Tharp said the law gives the board clear direction on how to decide whether to approve or deny a charter proposal.

“We are expected to make the determination of the likelihood that it will open and operate successfully while meeting all of the basic minimum expectations, such as making sure that there are increasing standards for student achievement, closing achievement gaps, increasing opportunities, providing for alternative learning, reducing the dropouts,” he said. “So there's a lot of pretty significant criteria, and we are tasked with measuring, do we believe that they have the plans in place to actually make this happen?”

The board plans to do follow-up interviews with the applicants later this month. They’re set to decide whether to approve the proposals at their regular meeting in January.

Tharp said there’s no numerical limit on how many applications the board can approve.

“From my personal standpoint, I'm not looking to go into these applications with an intent to deny anybody,” he said.

With this being the first year of the law, and with districts having such a short timeline to apply, Tharp said they want to be respectful of the work leaders have put into the process.

“I think a lot of us are going into this first meeting and trying to figure this out, with maybe a little bit of trepidation in figuring out exactly how we apply these criteria – but I think also with a lot of grace and understanding that these school districts are really coming forward with their best efforts,” he said.

HB 549 also allowed independent groups to submit applications, if a school district declines to move forward with a charter school proposal. In this round. the board received one application from a group other than a school district.

Here is the full list of charter school applications, from Board of Public Education staff:

· Billings Early College School
· Billings Multilingual Academy Charter
· Billings Opportunity School
· Boulder Jefferson Academy
· Bozeman Bridger Charter Academy
· Bozeman Online Charter
· Corvallis Distance Learning Charter
· Corvallis Gifted Learning Charter
· Corvallis Transformational Learning Charter
· East Helena 227 Academy
· Frenchtown Bronc Fast Track Public Charter
· Great Falls Core Elementary School
· Hamilton Bitterroot Polytech
· Helena Montessori Charter School
· Helena Mount Ascension Learning Academy Charter School
· Helena Project For Alternative Learning Charter School
· Kalispell Community Partnerships 3-5 Charter
· Kalispell Community Partnerships K-3 Charter
· Kalispell Flathead PACE Academy Charter
· Kalispell Rising Wolf Charter
· Kalispell Rocky Mountain Academy Charter
· Liberty Elementary Charter School District
· Missoula CONNECT Academy Charter
· Missoula TEACH Academy Charter
· Park City Montana Connections Academy
· YES Public Charter School (not from school district)