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Bipartisan charter model can offer innovative learning

by Daily Inter Lake
| September 10, 2023 12:00 AM

Charter schools are destined to become a part of Montana’s education landscape following the passage of two “choice school” laws this past legislative session, and despite the naysayers, the concept has a proven track record that would be a welcome addition to public education in the state.

The only question that remains now is which model is best for Montana — and a district court judge may have signaled the answer in a ruling last week.

First, a little background on charter schools is in order as there seems to be some misconceptions about what they entail. In short, these are tuition free schools that are publicly funded but independently operated. They cannot, we repeat, cannot be religiously based.

Charter schools are bound to the terms of a contract that lays out the school’s mission. An authorizer, such as a state agency, university or school district, holds the charter accountable and could close a school if it fails to meet standards set out in the contract.

Minnesota was the first state to OK charter schools in 1991. Today, 45 states and Washington, D.C. allow charter schools, with an estimated 7,486 schools established in the U.S. as of 2019. Montana certainly isn’t wading into uncharted waters by approving the charter school model — if anything, the Legislature is late to the dance.

During the last legislative session Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed two charter school bills into law.

House Bill 549 creates a charter system that is subject to existing public school regulations and is overseen by a locally elected public school board and the Board of Public Education.

House Bill 562, meanwhile, allows for the establishment of “community choice schools” that would be governed by a new, state-appointed commission and overseen by a local board elected by staff and parents of the new school. These schools, contrary to HB 549, would be exempt from many regulatory requirements the state currently uses in public schools.

As such, the bill is being challenged in court, with plaintiffs questioning the constitutionality of the law and oversight authority that diverges from a democratically elected local school board.

On Wednesday, Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Chris Abbott delivered a major blow for the law’s proponents in a preliminary injunction agreeing with the plaintiffs, and notably opining that “if elections are to be held for the bodies governing choice schools, plaintiffs have shown that the constitution likely requires that those elections be shared with all the qualified electors, not the narrow subset given the franchise by HB 562.”

The shaky constitutionality of the bill could prove to be a sizable hurdle that may never be cleared.

In contrast, HB 549 rightly keeps locally elected school boards in the oversight process, and not surprisingly received bipartisan legislative approval not afforded to HB 562. It even has the support of public education groups.

That diverse buy-in will be key as more parents, students, teachers and administrators learn about the benefits charter schools can provide and how they can actually compliment traditional public schools.

Charter schools are often created for specialized purposes, and can range from hand-on trades learning, to a hyper-focused arts, science or technology curriculum, or even a language-based learning environment. Why shouldn’t students have the choice to enroll in such a program if they believe it would be advantageous toward obtaining a higher education or more lucrative career path?

And as former teacher and charter school advocate Cathy Kincheloe pointed out in a recent interview with the Daily Inter Lake, competition has a way of raising everyone’s game. With the public money “following the student,” traditional schools and charter schools alike must strive to offer the best learning environment possible.

Keep an open mind about the charter model. If held accountable by a democratically elected local board and required to meet certain standards to ensure a safe learning environment, charter schools have the potential to meet a student’s needs in innovative ways.