Helena, Montana – The implementation of a new law that would allow the state to establish charter schools that are more independent from the current educational system has been temporarily halted by a judge in the Montana District Court.
Judge Chris Abbott in Helena granted a preliminary injunction on House Bill 562, which was approved by the Montana Legislature that year, on Wednesday, September 6, 2023.
HB 562 establishes “community choice schools,” which would be exempt from a variety of restrictions that traditional public schools must adhere to, such as teacher certification requirements. The bill is sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings.
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 plaintiffs have not demonstrated that charter schools or choice schools are unconstitutional in and of themselves, Abbott writes in his decision, but rather that the governing body for those schools, as established by HB 562, may be unconstitutional due to the authority granted to the Board of Public Education and locally elected school boards.
Recently, the names of the seven founding members of the new state commission in charge of Montana’s “community choice” charter schools were released.
The commission is not permitted to accept or reject requests for “community choice” schools as a result of Abbott’s decision. The decision does not, however, bar the commission from convening, selecting personnel, or passing bylaws.
“This comes as no surprise. Access to high quality, free, and equal public education in Montana is a fundamental right under our state constitution,” said Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees and a member of MQEC. “This case is about our children and about the future of our state. We cannot build privatized schools that defund public schools and provide quality education at the same time.”
The Montana Quality Education Coalition, a group that advocates for school districts and other public school organizations, is one of the plaintiffs contesting the law. 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.
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 State’s attorneys claimed in a court brief that choice schools would give Montana kids new choices, including the possibility of schools with a focus on subjects like science, math, or Indian culture.