Budget Cuts Charter Schools Disruption Education Industry Montana

Montana: Charter Industry Targets Rural State

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The charter industry has set its sights on Montana. This is an odd decision, since the state has no big cities and is almost 90% white. The African American population is less than 1%. The biggest city is Billings, with about 110,000 residents; the second largest is Missoula, which has about 75,000 residents. Montana ranks above the national averages on NAEP.

Montana has two existing charter schools, but the industry wants to make it easier to grow.

Alex Sakariassan of the Montana Free Press reported:

The Montana Legislature once more took up the issue of school choice during a lengthy hearing on a bill that would open the door to public charter schools in Montana.

Speaking before the House Education Committee Wednesday, Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, informed fellow lawmakers that Montana is one of only five states in the nation that has not yet embraced charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate independently of the public school system. Hill said he hopes to change that with House Bill 633. The measure would authorize the establishment of such schools in Montana, grant them autonomy over their finances, their curriculum and their staff, and create a new commission and approval framework to oversee those schools.

“This public charter school bill will provide an option for innovation outside our current traditional public school,” Hill said. 

Hill and other speakers noted that legislation similar to HB 633 has been introduced numerous times in the past, specifically during the 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 sessions. None of those efforts cleared the Legislature.

“Montanans like choice, and we’re told we have choice in everything we do except when it comes to publicly educating our kids. Somehow when it comes to public education, we’re told, ‘No, that square peg is going to fit in that round hole or we’re going to make it.’”

ATTORNEY GENERAL AUSTIN KNUDSEN

Throughout the more than two-hour discussion, supporters framed charter schools as giving Montana parents and students more choices in K-12 education

Public school supporters opposed the bill.

Opponents countered that HB 633 would stretch education funding in Montana and build a parallel and duplicative school system to the one currently overseen by the Board of Public Education. Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, said that would equate to “growing government.” The issue was also addressed in a legal review note compiled by the Legislative Services Division, which said HB 633 could raise constitutional questions related to the BPE’s authority over public schools. Curtis also highlighted concerns about how the bill would ensure adequate oversight of newly established charter schools...

Curtis’ opposition was echoed by several other major public education associations, including the Montana School Boards Association and the School Administrators of Montana. BPE Executive Director McCall Flynn testified that charter schools established under HB 633 would be exempt from the licensing and accreditation standards required of public schools. Flynn added that an administrative rule adopted by the board in 2012 already allows for the formation of charter schools, citing the presence of the Bridger Charter Academy in Bozeman.

“This bill is unnecessary,” Flynn said. “The Board of Public Education already has a process in place to establish public charter schools.”

As the discussion turned to members of the committee, several lawmakers tried to gain a better grasp of the scope of HB 633’s impacts. MTSBA Executive Director Lance Melton fielded numerous questions about the financial implications a charter school system would carry. He noted that, as written, the bill would grant a separate basic entitlement to new charter schools, meaning those schools would draw money directly from Montana’s education budget. Depending on the number and size of such schools that crop up, Melton said, the added funding obligation to the state could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Keila Szpaller wrote in the Daily Montanan about the legislative debate.

Its leading opponent is Rep. Wendy McKamey, a Republican legislator, who insisted that families have plenty of choices already.

Opponents…said the bill is riddled with shortcomings and saddles taxpayers with higher costs.

For example, it could add $321,000 in public cost for each new high school in the state, according to the Montana School Boards Association. At the same time, it would take away a requirement that schools teach students with special needs or pay employees prevailing wages, according to the Montana Federation of Public Employees. And it would remove minimum teacher licensing standards, according to the Montana Board of Public Education.

“It’s my understanding that we wouldn’t want anyone off the street coming into our homes to do plumbing,” said McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education. “Nor should we expect someone without any kind of educator preparation to teach our children in our public schools, even if that is a public charter school…”

Several representatives from Montana’s education associations argued against the bill, but they weren’t the only opponents. Kim Mangold, with the Montana Farmers Union, said students who attend rural schools in Montana are a vulnerable population.

Rural schools are critical to the largest farming and ranch organization in the state, Mangold said: “These schools are the lifeblood of rural Montana.”

“This act has the potential to remove resources from public schools, especially rural public schools, that are important to farm and ranching today,” Mangold said.

Lance Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association, explained the potential costs to both state coffers and local property taxpayers given the “technically flawed way” the bill was written. In short, he said it would require an elementary charter school with even just one pupil to receive $53,000, or a high school with just one student to receive $321,000.

If every Class I and II district in the state was converted into a series of public charter schools of 200 students each, the bill would end up costing the state of Montana $350 million — an estimated 25 percent on top of the money already going to fund all K12 public education, he said.

“You’d have a nice little gift-wrapped surprise when you arrived in the next legislative session if and when this was to occur,” Melton said of the extra costs.

A very bad bill for Montana that could blow a hole in the state budget and break up communities while enriching charter operators and corporate charter chains. If Montanans are conservative, they will reject this bill.

Thanks to reader “Montana Teacher” for sending these links.

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