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Lawsuit opposing the Montana charter school law is still pending as the new program’s initial steps are taken



Helena, Montana – In all school districts in Montana, classes are starting up again for the 2023–24 academic year. Two new laws mandate the opening of new charter schools in the state before the start of the 2024–2025 school year, although one of those laws must first survive a legal challenge.

Now that a lawsuit challenging House Bill 562 as unconstitutional is moving forward, plaintiffs and defendants are awaiting the Lewis and Clark County district judge’s decision on whether it should continue to be in effect. On August 11, the case’s judge Chris Abbott heard oral arguments.

Compared to House Bill 549, the other charter school bill the Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law this year, HB 562, sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, outlined a framework for charter schools that would operate more independently from the current public school system.

HB 562 would establish “community choice schools,” which would be exempt from a number of regulations that traditional public schools are required to obey, such as requirements for teacher certification. The governing bodies of schools would be chosen in the future by the parents and guardians of the kids enrolled. The schools might be approved and managed by a new Community Choice School Commission that would report to the state Board of Public Education.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition, a nonprofit that speaks for school districts and other public school organizations, is one of the plaintiffs contesting the statute. The case also includes a number of people and the League of Women Voters.

Community choice schools, according to the plaintiffs, would be “privatized” institutions and a component of a “separate and unequal” educational system. They contend that the measure would erode the provision of a top-notch public education provided by the Montana Constitution.

“In fact, HB 562 subverts Montana’s public school system by authorizing and funding schools entirely outside the public education system prescribed by the Montana Constitution,” plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a court filing. “The result is a competing system of individual educational nonprofits made public only by their unchecked receipt of public funds.”

They contend that the bill infringes on the jurisdiction of the Board of Public Education and local school boards since choice schools would have their own boards of directors and because the new commission would function independently of both.

Plaintiffs are requesting a preliminary injunction from Abbott to halt HB 562 while the case is being litigated. The first-choice schools are to operate by August 2024, according to the law, which took effect on July 1. The commission hasn’t been established yet, though.

The law is being defended by the Montana Department of Justice. The idea that existing public schools would lose funding due to choice schools, according to state attorneys, is “pure speculation.” They said that by encouraging competition, the law would guarantee an improvement in educational quality and that choice schools would still be public, just with a different organizational structure.

The lawyers claimed in a court filing that choice schools would give Montana children new choices, including the possibility of schools devoted to subjects like science, arithmetic, or Indian culture.

“Enjoining such an opportunity for Montana’s students before they ever had the chance to reap the educational benefits would frustrate the intent of the very provisions Plaintiffs cite in the Montana Constitution guaranteeing quality education,” they claimed.

Defendants claimed that local school boards might request the authority to designate choice schools independently, that choice schools would have oversight, and that the new commission would provide regular reports to the Board of Public Education. Plaintiffs said that wasn’t enough to safeguard the educational system.

HB 562 was not the subject of a temporary restraining order by Abbott in June. He made this decision because he believed there would be enough time for the court to rule on the request for an injunction before any choice schools could be permitted. The statute is currently in force as a result.

Elsie Arntzen, the superintendent of public instruction, announced this week that she will start accepting applications from those wishing to join the Community Choice Schools Commission. Through September 8, her office will accept applications.

A single commission member will be chosen by Arntzen. Gianforte is going to pick two. There are seven members overall, with one each chosen by the House and Senate leaders of both parties.

In accordance with HB 562, the commission members “must collectively possess substantial experience and expertise in board governance, business, finance, education, management, and philanthropy,” and they must all “have a demonstrated understanding of and commitment to choice schools as a strategy for strengthening public education.”

The other charter bill, HB 549, would allow independent schools to enter if local school districts choose not to proceed on their own. It would give local school districts the first opportunity to establish charters. Less exemptions from the standards for conventional public schools would apply to those institutions.

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