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Montana charter school ruling - four things to know

A Montana District Court judge has temporarily blocked parts of a law passed by the state legislature to create a system of public charter schools in Montana.

Montana is one of the only states in the nation that, until now, hasn't allowed for the creation of public charter schools, despite overwhelming evidence including research from Stanford University showing their success.

The Montana legislature actually passed two charter school bills - HB 562 and HB 549. As we previously reported, HB 562 was the stronger bill.

As they have done in nearly every state that has voted to launch public charter schools, teachers union leaders and the League of Women Voters, among others, sued to prevent implementation of HB 562.

HB 562 is different from aspects of HB 549 in that it creates a School Choice Commission that can authorize public charter schools.

District Court Judge Christopher Abbott's ruling and the union lawsuit claim the new law invades the authority of the Board of Public Education. The ruling also took issue with the fact that public charter schools created under HB 562 would also eventually have their own elected boards, voted upon by staff and families at the school.

While the court issued a temporary hold on parts of the law, there were important victories for supporters of charter schools contained in the ruling.

Here are four other important details:

Charter schools are not unconstitutional in Montana

Judge Abbott's ruling makes it clear that, while he is blocking parts of HB 562, the plaintiffs have not shown that "charter schools or choice schools are themselves likely to be unconstitutional."

The issue of student funding vs. school funding

The funding argument in this debate is all about whether you believe funding for education belongs to the student or belongs to the school. Union activists contend money spent on public charter schools diverts money from traditional public schools. But this assumes the money belongs to the school no matter how many students attend. In reality, the money belongs to the student.

The state rightfully maintains that "no improper diversion occurs because choice schools are public entities and part of the public school system." The court confirmed the state is "likely correct."

Public schools ... or not?

The court's ruling makes it clear, once and for all, that public charter schools are public schools. In fact, the activists who are suing are, in part, relying on that to be true, while at the same time claiming the schools are not public. (In order for the state Board of Public Education's power to be usurped, the school would need to be public and under its control.)

In reality, public charter schools are open to all students and free of charge. As Judge Abbott wrote, "the Framers likely understood a public school simply to be a publicly funded primary or secondary school generally open and free to all children of a district."

Suing on HB 562 - not HB 549

If union activists believed HB 549 was a threat, they would have also sued to prevent implementation. The bottom line is that HB 549 didn't allow for nearly as much flexibility and room for innovation. It would allow the state Board of Public Education to approve charter schools, so long as they meet 30 different requirements in their application.

It's also worth noting that while HB 562 called for the schools to be overseen by a board elected by students and staff of the school, HB 549 calls for local elections in the school district where the charter is located. This would make it easier for activists to gain seats and, for better or worse, control the future of public charter schools in Montana.

What's next?

Judge Abbott says the school choice commission may continue its work, but cannot approve schools while the case is under review.

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