Charter Schools Proposal Gets Debate in Montana Senate

Critics worry that the proposal could siphon money from the public school system

HELENA — The Montana Senate revived a charter schools bill Thursday that would sidestep the authority of school boards by establishing a new statewide commission to oversee a system of nontraditional schools.

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder has been pushing the bill as a way to give communities, particularly those on tribal lands, more flexibility and choice in education. But critics worry that a possible proliferation of charter schools would siphon money from the public school system and would lack the same standards and accountability required of campuses under the oversight of local school boards.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, won the barest support needed to move the bill out of the chamber’s Education Committee. The chamber voted 26-24 Thursday to give the matter a hearing on the Senate floor.

Thomas placed the bill on the calendar later in the day, but it was not taken up, presumably to give supporters an opportunity to solidify support.

While state schools officials say graduation rates are rising — up to 86 percent, according to state statistics last fall — Windy Boy expressed concern that many of the students who do not graduate are who perform poorly on achievement tests are disproportionately located on the state’s Indian reservations.

“We’re not addressing the rest of them who are not graduating — the ones on reservations and border towns,” Windy Boy said. “Graduation rates may be on the rise, but they are still not to that level where they are acceptable.”

Gov. Steve Bullock has previously expressed concern about charter schools. While some already exist in the state, the governor has expressed skepticism over the broad sweep of Windy Boy’s proposal.

Bullock’s spokeswoman, Ronja Abel, said the Republican-led Legislature should focus more on the state’s pressing issues — such as passing a state budget or an infrastructure bonding bill — instead of “playing last-minute politics with efforts to divert public funds away from public schools.”

According to a legislative fiscal analysis, the bill could draw $5,575 per student from the state’s general fund. Beginning in the 2019 fiscal year, more than $750,000 from the fund could be diverted to charter schools. Windy boy disputes the analysis, which he said makes unreasonable assumptions about how many private schools would seek to gain charter school status.

If signed into law by the governor, the measure would also establish a new seven-member commission mostly independent of elected school boards. The commission would be led by the superintendent of public schools and two members each appointed by the governor, president of the senate and speaker of the house. The commission would have the authority to charter schools in communities that request them.

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