Senate Votes Down Dueling Charter School Bills

The Senate rejected both of Montana’s charter school bills, likely settling one of the Legislature’s highest profile education debates this session

By Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

The Montana Senate rejected a pair of charter school bills Wednesday in a sudden twist to one of the 2023 Legislature’s higher profile debates on education policy.

House Bill 562 and House Bill 549 appeared on the Senate’s floor schedule early Wednesday afternoon, setting the stage for yet another robust discussion about the type of charter school model lawmakers were prepared to embrace. HB 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, proposed a system governed by autonomous school boards and exempt from the regulatory requirements currently applied to Montana’s public schools. HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, proposed charter schools subject to existing public school regulations and overseen by locally elected public school boards and the Board of Public Education.

The Senate first considered HB 562, with Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, framing it as a “great opportunity” to give students and parents a choice. However, Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, rose in opposition to the bill based on the potential implications to public school funding. He was joined by Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, who cited the limited authority granted to the state education officials in arguing that HB 562 didn’t go far enough in giving parents “freedom from this oversight that robs them of independence.”

“All this does is give [the Office of Public Instruction] total tentacles, and the Board of Education total tentacles, into what is supposedly an independent school,” Molnar said. “Why would we go down that road? You want an independent school, have an independent school. You want a public school, we got plenty of them, build another one. We don’t need two public schools under total control [of OPI].”

HB 562 failed to pass its first full vote in the Senate, 23-27, with 11 Republicans joining all 16 Senate Democrats in opposition.

Immediately after the vote on HB 562, senators took up HB 549. Much of the discussion centered on whether the bill constituted a significant change to Montana’s current governance of charter schools. Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, characterized the proposal as a way to give students the ability to pursue certain curricular or skill-building opportunities that may not exist in their local public school. Fuller countered that HB 549 failed to capture the spirit of what parents are seeking in a charter school system.

“Parents and children need choices,” Fuller said. “We’re merely making another subsidiary of the current system.”

The Senate voted HB 549 down, 8-42, with Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, joining seven Republicans in supporting the proposal.

Wednesday’s action came in stark contrast to previous advancements for both bills. HB 562 was a favored option among House Republicans, clearing the chamber with only a handful of “no” votes from within the caucus. And it passed through two Senate committees entirely on Republican support. Besides McClafferty, the only Democrat to cast a favoring vote on HB 562 was Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder.

Meanwhile, HB 549 attracted strong bipartisan support earlier in the session and received supporting testimony from most of the state’s major public education organizations, including the School Administrators of Montana and Montana School Boards Association. It cleared the House on a mixed vote of 58-33. However, HB 549 began to pick up Democratic opposition the moment it debuted in the Senate, passing both the Senate Education and Cultural Resources and Senate Finance and Claims committees on the same near party-line votes as HB 562.

Though procedural avenues do remain for one or both bills to be revived, the Legislative Services Division currently lists HB 549 and HB 562 as “probably dead.” During a session characterized by the most significant advancements of charter school legislation in recent memory, many education stakeholders wondered whether the decision between the two bills would ultimately fall to Gov. Greg Gianforte, an outspoken proponent of school choice who earlier this month declined to take a position. In that way, the Senate’s actions Wednesday answered a question that has become increasingly prominent for public school advocates and charter school proponents in recent weeks.

However, the Senate did vote in favor of another piece of school choice legislation. House Bill 393, also sponsored by Vinton, would direct per-pupil state funding from public school districts to a new type of “savings account.” The accounts would be used to reimburse the parents of special needs students for the costs of tutoring and other educational resources outside the public school system. The Senate approved the bill Wednesday in an initial vote that saw eight Republicans join the chamber’s full Democratic caucus in opposition. HB 393 previously passed the House on a 66-32 vote, with the bulk of that support coming from Republicans.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.