Office of Public Instruction Seeks Members for Charter School Commission Amid Litigation

The state is working to build a commission that will oversee publicly funded charter schools as the legality of the bill that created the “community choice” system remains in limbo

By Denali Sagner
A jar of pencils in a classroom at Fair-Mont-Egan School in Kalispell on March 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Office of Public Instruction has opened applications for the Community Choice School Commission, a newly created seven-member board that will approve proposals for publicly funded charter schools across the state of Montana.

The commission is a product of House Bill 562, a highly-contested bill brought by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, which authorizes the establishment of “community choice” schools, or taxpayer-funded charter schools that are overseen by the statewide commission and a board of trustees that is elected only by teachers and parents at the school. “Community choice” schools, though technically public, are exempt from complying with Title 20 of the Montana Constitution, which outlines regulations for public schools such as teacher certification, health and safety guidelines and curriculum requirements.

“It is my duty to appoint a student and family committed member to this newly formed commission that will support our special needs students,” Arntzen said in an Aug. 24 press release. “Of our almost 150,000 enrolled students in our Montana public school system, 14% are special needs students. This commission’s work will focus on the success of all abilities of these students.”

The bill is not specifically targeted at expanding educational opportunities for students with special needs, however some proponents of “community choice” schools have argued that they would serve special needs students more effectively than public schools currently do.

The commission will have statewide jurisdiction over the establishment of “community choice” schools, and will include two members appointed by the governor and one member appointed by the superintendent of public instruction, the president of the Montana Senate, the speaker of the house, the minority leader of the Senate and the minority leader of the House of Representatives, respectively.

Arntzen’s appointee to the commission will serve an initial three-year term, and the commission must “collectively possess substantial experience and expertise in board governance, business, finance, education, management, and philanthropy,” according to the press release.  

Arntzen and OPI, as well as a number of Republican lawmakers, have described “community choice” schools as a tool to increase educational opportunities for Montana families.

“Government should never stand between parents and their kid’s education,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a May 19 press release. “We’re empowering Montana parents to choose what’s best for their family and their kids. We’re putting students and parents first in education.”

A group of public education advocates, however, sued OPI and the state in June to block the law, arguing that the “community choice” charter system funnels public money into “a separate and unequal system of state-subsidized private schools in direct conflict with the system of equal, free, and quality public education that the Montana Constitution guarantees,” according to the court filing.

Opponents to House Bill 562 have also argued that the law violates the Constitution by holding school board elections only among parents and teachers affiliated with the school, given that the Montana Constitution mandates that public schools are overseen by a school board elected by any qualified voter who lives within the school district.

“The Legislature cannot funnel public money to private institutions. The health of our society depends on a free, high quality public education system,” Doug Reisig, executive director of Montana Quality Education Coalition, said in a press release after advocates filed the lawsuit in June. “We vow to stand against school privatization activists’ incursions into Montana.  And the great news is, we have the Montana Constitution behind us.”

Judge Christopher David Abbott on Aug. 11 presided over a hearing on the lawsuit, as plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction, which would block the enforcement of House Bill 562 until its legality can be ironed out in the courts. Abbott has not yet issued a ruling on whether or not to enjoin the bill, which went into effect on July 1.  

The Community Choice School Commission interest form can be found here.

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