Proponents of a bill that would provide public funding to charter schools say the law would give families much needed options, while opponents say it would take away dollars from the already strapped budgets of Montana’s public school districts.
The House Education Committee heard about three hours of testimony Wednesday afternoon on House Bill 603 introduced by Rep. Mark Blasdel, R-Somers.
The bill would authorize the establishment of public charter schools as a means of providing additional educational opportunities. It would also establish authorizers, autonomy and funding of the schools.
“Forty other states have this option in their state, and it’s working,” Blasdel said.
Jeff Laszloffy and Debra Lamm of the Montana Family Foundation spoke in favor of the legislation as an alternative for the 2,000 students who drop out in this state every year.
“We have a crisis in education that extends here to Montana as well,” he said. “We need options and this bill provides the option”
Laszloffy asked, “Why do we think we can solve our problems with worn-out solutions we’ve used in the past?”
Lamm worked with Blasdel to draft the bill said charters would be small, community-based schools that have a high degree of achievement responsibility while providing administrators freedom to make swift decisions.
Lisa Grover — a former teacher, the senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the founder of one of the first charter high schools in New Mexico — spoke in favor of the bill. She gave a presentation Tuesday night at the Residence Inn about the advantages of charter schools.
Grover credits the law enacted in her home state with allowing her to start the school that has been ranked by Newsweek as one of the top performing 1,200 highs schools in the country and testified that she supports the bill currently under consideration in the Treasure State.
“This bill offers clear guidelines to opening and operating charter schools,” she said.
Helena mother Theresa Lode said the public schools are not meeting the needs of her children.
“The current education models are 150 years old … it’s clear everything has changed except our education models, and it’s failing our children,” Lode said.
Retired Helena teacher Barbara Rush said charter schools would provide much needed parental involvement.
Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors’ Association, said such schools could provide focused learning and career paths for trades such as construction.
Many school officials, including the assistant superintendent for the Office of Public Instruction, the Helena District Superintendent, and the president of the largest union in the state (for educators), spoke in opposition to the bill.
All say it’s unconstitutional and claim the $250,000 estimated start-up costs are grossly underestimated.
They are concerned about how the schools would be governed, the possibility of preferential selection of students who would attend, and who would authorize such schools.
A school trustee from Kalispell said if approved the bill would create duplication of government — another whole system to manage students here, when they are performing in the top 10 percent nationally.
Darrell Rud, executive director of the Montana School Administrators, said there is data to prove just about anything and many charter schools have closed because of lack of academic success and funding.
Chris Puyear with the Montana Rural Education Association testified he is extremely concerned about funding as well as cherry picking the students who are high performing for the charters and leaving the others, with high needs and higher costs, for the public schools to educate.
“There are already options … school choice exists in Montana,” he said.
Barb Riley, a school trustee from Columbia Falls, said the concepts are not Montana based.
“We can’t apply urban behavior to the frontier demographics of Montana,” she said. “We need to focus on the kids we have with our resources.”
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, said he doesn’t understand why Montanans would take the advice of out-of-staters. He said Montana is only one of five states that don’t have a sales tax, but that doesn’t mean voters want it.
Feaver also said what is being proposed is not public at all.
“We are talking about private charter school with a public veneer,” he said.
There is already a law allowing for charter schools in Montana but HB603 would create a public charter school commission that would work as an independent state agency with statewide chartering jurisdiction and authority.
Executive action is expected by the committee sometime next week.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org