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After initial rejection, charter school legislation are brought back in the Montana Senate



Helena, Montana — A day after being defeated on the Senate floor, two rival measures that would develop new methods for creating charter schools in Montana are back in action.

The House Bills 549 and 562 have advanced jointly during the 68th session. Both proposals made it through Senate committees over the last week and were approved by the House last month. On Thursday, senators voted to revisit their decision after they were stopped in the Senate on Wednesday. The legislation will now go before the Senate for a second time on Friday.

HB 562 was the first piece of legislation senators looked at on Wednesday. It was sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, the R-Billings House majority leader, and had the support of other GOP legislators. This proposal would establish “community choice” charter schools, a system with more freedom from the current system of school management. They would not be subject to many regulations that ordinary public schools must obey, such as those governing teacher certification.

The proposed legislation would establish a new state commission under the Board of Public Education that would have the authority to approve choice schools. Local school boards would also be eligible to request this authority. The governing bodies of schools would be chosen in the future by the parents and guardians of the kids enrolled. The accountability for monitoring the school’s performance would lie with the authorizers.

Supporters of HB 562 claimed that it was the greatest way to give students who aren’t well-served by current institutions a genuine choice.

“Public school can handle the competition, if this is competitive and it is cost-effective,” said Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell. “Please vote yes, and give students in Montana an opportunity and their parents an opportunity to have some real choices.”

However, opponents were concerned about how the new program would affect already-existing schools.

“Just in the back of my mind, I feel like there needs to be a little more work done on this to not affect the rest of the schools that we obviously need for our kids,” said Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby.

HB 562 was narrowly defeated by a vote of 23–27. The remaining 23 Republicans were in support, while 11 Republicans joined all of the Democrats in opposition.

Following that, the Senate discussed HB 549, a bill that would expand charter schools in a way that is more similar to the current system and was introduced by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls. Local school districts would have the first opportunity to establish charters, but independent schools might step in if districts didn’t do so on their own.

The duty of assessing, approving, and keeping track of the performance of charter schools would fall to the Board of Public Education itself. The voters in the local school district would still elect the members of the governing boards of charter schools that operate independently of it. Additionally, there would be fewer exceptions for charter schools from the rules that apply to public schools.

“This is a perfect example of how students will have a choice,” said Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan. “They want to study something, they want to go somewhere where they can utilize and build their skills – this is an opportunity if they can’t get it through their local public school.”

However, the bill’s detractors claimed it didn’t bring about a significant enough change.

“This isn’t needed; schools can already do many things that are here,” said Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. “So I just encourage vote no on this, and let’s move on.”

The 8-42 vote against HB 549 was far more significant. It was rejected by 27 Republicans and 15 Democrats, while it was supported by seven Republicans and one Democrat.

Thursday, however, brought about a change. Motions to resurrect both legislation were approved by the Senate. Each bill’s bearers stated that they had spoken and requested a chance for more discussion. Salomon claimed he believed politics, not policy, had taken over the previous day’s action.

The legislation will land on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk if they pass the Senate without amendment.

Another bill pertaining to school choice is already on its way to Gianforte. On Thursday, the Senate approved House Bill 393 with a vote of 28 to 22. “Education savings accounts” were established under that legislation to give families of students with special needs access to funds for additional educational resources.

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