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The big lie and other myths about charter schools

by Trish Schreiber
| August 20, 2023 12:00 AM

The education establishment’s unfounded claims aimed at dissuading families and communities from establishing choice schools can finally be exposed as outright lies. Comparing these myths to the new law reveals that claims made against the Community Choice Schools Act don’t match reality.

Myth 1: Charter schools are private schools.

The definition of a charter school is an independently operated, tuition-free public school. Though a convergence of public and private features exists within charter schools, the public status of charter schools is well established in statute and case law nationwide in 45 other states including California, Colorado, New York and most recently in North Carolina. Additionally, SCOTUS just denied hearing further discussion about the so-called “private status” of charter schools. Choice Schools were created in the legislature, will be under the general supervision of the Board of Public Education (BPE) and will be partially funded with public money. Charter Schools are decidedly public, including in Montana.

Myth 2: Charter schools are not accountable to taxpayers.

Charter schools have substantial autonomy while being mandated to deliver measurable academic results. A choice school must annually disclose to the BPE a financial report (Section 4 and 7), standardized student test scores (Section 4), proof of academic growth over time, and a comparison between test results of choice school students and traditional students (Section 12).

Traditional schools are granted status to operate based on compliance with regulations in Title 20, the state’s education law, not on showing evidence that students actually learn, and therefore argue that accountability is tied to adherence to Title 20.

Which should parents and taxpayers prefer? Schools that educate their students according to their promise and responsibility to do so, or schools that adhere to mandated hiring practices and accreditation regulations regardless of whether students meet proficiency levels?

Myth 3: Charter schools cherry pick students and don’t Aaccept students with disabilities.

Choice schools admit students by lottery if demand exceeds seats available (Section 4). Though some seats can be saved for those who heavily invest in the school’s success, such as board members’ children, employees’ children, and siblings of enrolled students, no more than 10% of the student body can comprise saved seats in this manner (Section 4). In contrast, traditional schools cater to students living in their zoned vicinity and only recently have allowed tuition-free surplus seats to students living in other districts. Title 20 favors students living within district boundaries, perpetuating the unequal access to higher quality schools to those who cannot afford to buy in preferred zip codes.

Additionally, each choice school, as its own Local Education Agency (Section 14), must follow all federal laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title IX and all health, safety and civil rights laws (Section 14).

Myth 4: Charter schools take money away from traditional schools.

Funds for students enrolled in choice schools bypass traditional districts, going directly from the treasury to the public school of choice (Section 15). The state of Montana and the county treasurers are chaperones of the taxpayers’ money collected for the intention of funding a quality education. If students don’t attend a traditional school, then that funding stays in the treasury. The traditional schools don’t receive money for students they aren’t educating regardless of whether students leave because of relocation or choose private school or homeschooling.

While some of the false claims are based in truth from other states’ laws, they do not hold true in Montana. Choice Schools empower communities to create student-centered, public schools that are free and open to all.

Trish Schreiber is a senior education fellow at the Montana-based Frontier Institute.

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