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It's past-time to bring charter schools to Montana

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

The Treasure State is one of the only states left that does not permit charter schools - but that might be about to change.

A slew of education choice bills were introduced in the Montana legislature over the past 10 days. They include House Bill 549, introduced by Rep. Fred Anderson.

HB 549 authorizes the state public board of education to approve charter schools, so long as they meet 30 different requirements in their application. Another bill, House Bill 562, would provide more flexibility and room for innovation.

Charter schools are tuition-free schools that are publicly funded but independently run. Most charter schools are exempt from many state laws and regulations, but are subject to a contract that includes goals, fiscal oversight and accountability. If charter schools don't perform, they can be closed.

Similar to other state charter school laws, the Montana bill does not allow charter schools to pick and choose students. In fact, it says plainly:

"A public charter school shall enroll all students who wish to attend the school unless the number of students exceeds the capacity of a program, class, grade level, or building. If capacity is insufficient to enroll all students who wish to attend the school, the public charter school shall select students through a lottery."

The legislation also provides for a funding mechanism, saying "it is the intent of the legislature that a public charter school receive operational funding on a per-pupil basis that is equitable with the per-pupil funding within the general fund of the located school district."

Charter schools are popular with parents, yet Montana remains one of the only states in the country without them. In some states, hundreds of charter schools are available to families who may be looking for an alternative education model. Still, throughout the country, more than 3.7 million students attend a charter school.

In states like Washington, charter schools are limited mostly due to the state teacher's union, which has resisted any effort to fund them. The result is a small number of students in the Evergreen State who can take advantage of a charter school opportunity.

The number of students who have access to charters in the western states is impressive. Arizona and Utah lead the way.

Despite the claims of opponents, charter schools are public schools. They don't pick and choose students, and often times they serve more underserved students than local district schools. For instance, in Washington state, eight of 10 charter schools open in 2018 served more special needs students, as reported by The Seattle Times.

Charter schools in Idaho have an impressive record. There are more than 70 statewide, and some are listed as among the top schools in the nation.

The research shows Montana students would be well-served by having public charter school options.

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