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The real agenda behind Montana charter schools

by Dana Carmichael
| April 2, 2023 12:00 AM

Critics of Montana public schools, are recycling student achievement boogeymen and offering charter schools as the solution. In cities where charter school enrollment is the highest, based on percentage of total school populations, there is no significant change in reading or math scores. In fact, Montana scores statewide are higher than these charters in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Antonio, Detroit, and D.C. If these charters are the benchmark, our public education exceeds it.

The largest communities in Montana already have alternative high schools and private schools. Public schools of all sizes also have access to Montana Digital Academy and other online course offerings. Scholarships are more prevalent than ever with legislative rules changes for private and corporate tax incentives for donations up to two million dollars.

But what about rural charter schools? “Education Week” writes about rural schools using charters to prevent school closures and consolidation.

Anyone following Class C sports knows how hard communities are fighting to keep schools open. Just look at the hyphenated school names for six-man high school football. I fail to see how forming charter schools along the highline will help these communities.

Another article by “Rural Ed Voices” thinks charter schools can positively impact rural areas, and holds up Idaho charter schools as examples. They highlight a school created to teach native language as a shining star for the Shosone-Bannock tribe. But Montana tribes already have native language programs in public school classrooms. A STEM school is believed to be successful because they cut transportation and food service costs by attending four days per week. Sound familiar?

Many of our rural schools currently have four-day weeks. So why the big push for charter schools? The real agenda is to undermine the tenure protections and teachers’ retirement system, as charter schools would not participate in either of these systems. Our private schools already eschew these protections, which is why salaries lag behind their public employee counterparts.

Fewer rules and regulations might be what charter proponents want you to buy, but HB-562 wants to create a new government entity called the Community Choice School Commission, (p. 1, line 24). All seats would be appointed one for one by the governor, house majority and minority speakers, senate majority and minority speakers, and the state superintendent of schools. Notice how the majority of these appointees would be beholden to officials elected by individual voting districts?

And what of the existing Office of Public Instruction and the Board of Public Education? If state tax dollars are being used for charter schools capable of contracting with for-profit “entrepreneurial education” shouldn’t these schools be responsible to the current oversight structure of our public schools? Even our registered homeschools report to county superintendents.

If this is rule is adopted by the Senate, I believe charter schools will become exclusive entities within our communities. But exclusivity does not mean better, as the charter experiment bears out in 44 other states. We know how to improve schools. Our local school boards have the power to create smaller class sizes at all grade levels and help raise standards of excellence for students and teachers. Private citizens can run for these boards or volunteer with early grades to help close gaps in reading and math skills. Let’s strengthen our communities to strengthen our schools.

Looking for a silver bullet to “fix” schools ignores the interconnectedness of communities. Schools mirror where they exist. The real solutions are to help families with jobs/wages that root them to the community and combat the poverty cycle too often to blame for trouble in the schools.

Investing in education is a good thing. Creating country club schools is not.

Dana Carmichael is a retired teacher and librarian. She lives in Whitefish.

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