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Pair of Montana charter school bills both headed to governor's desk

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 6:44 PM, Apr 28, 2023

HELENA - A pair of bills to expand charter schools in Montana have cleared the Legislature, and now both will be on their way to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.

The Senate approved House Bill 549 and 562 on Friday – both passing final votes 27-21. It came after a Senate GOP caucus, where leaders urged their members to back them, saying the bills were key to wrapping up the session and that it was time to resolve the charter issue once and for all.

The two bills set up different models for charter schools. HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would give local school districts the first option to create charters, but allow independent schools to come in if districts don’t move forward on their own.

HB 562, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, would create “community choice” charter schools and a new state commission under the Board of Public Education that could authorize and oversee them.

The bills both failed on the Senate floor on Wednesday before lawmakers revived them on Thursday.

On Friday, Senate Republican leaders called a caucus just before the vote on the charter school bills and two other bills that they identified as “endgame bills” — bills that were important to pass as part of end-of-session negotiations.

“I realize some people don’t like the two charter school bills; the House does, and they want them as part of an endgame,” said Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

Fitzpatrick went on to say the issue of charter schools and questions over whether charter proposals can pass legal muster were not going away.

“We should pass the bill and let the courts decide if it’s valid or not because this issue’s going to come around forever and ever and ever,” he said. “Why not resolve it now?”

Charter School GOP Caucus
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, urged GOP senators to pass two charter school bills during a caucus Apr. 28, 2023.

When Republican senators returned to the floor, there was little discussion on HB 549, but much more on HB 562 – the bill that would create charters operating more autonomously from the existing public school system.

Community choice schools would be exempted from a number of requirements that traditional public schools must follow, like teacher certification requirements. Schools would be operated by governing boards, eventually elected by parents and guardians of the students attending.

Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, said the bill could threaten the “integrity” of Montana public schools.

“We have a responsibility to our citizens, to our taxpayers, to be good stewards,” she said. “This bill has minimal accountability.”

But supporters of HB 562 defended its accountability measures and said it was time to give families more choice.

“Honestly, we’re only going to see a handful of choice schools established across the state, and that will only happen if there’s local support in the communities that want them,” said Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City. “If the parents and the community come together to show a need for this type of school and go through the rigorous proposal and approval process, then who are we to stand in the way of approving this type of school?”

Charter schools under HB 549 would have fewer exemptions. Those operating independently of a local school district would still have their governing boards elected by all the voters in that school district. The Board of Public Education itself would be tasked with evaluating and approving charter schools and monitoring their performance.

Lawmakers who preferred that bill had said it was more likely to fit with the requirements of the Montana Constitution.

All Democrats in the Senate voted against both bills, as did four Republicans. 25 Republicans supported both bills. Sens. Walt Sales, R-Manhattan, and Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, voted for only HB 549, and Sens. Becky Beard, R-Elliston, and Mike Lang, R-Malta, voted only for HB 562.