A flagship Republican bill proposing changing charter school regulation in Montana was part of the main topic at a legislative video conference in Havre Tuesday, just hours before the bill died in a nearly tie vote on its third reading.
House Bill 315, proposed by Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, went down at 2:46 p.m. on a 49-50 vote.
Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Harlem, voted against the bill, while Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, chair of the House Education Committee, voted for it. Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, was excused and did not vote Tuesday, although she voted for the bill on its second reading Monday.
Several people at the noon video conference in Robins School Administration Building, sponsored each week by Havre Public Schools and the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, asked Hansen about that bill and other education bills, called school choice bills by their supporters.
Former Montana Regent of Higher Education Lynn Morrison Hamilton spoke about a legislator’s comment on giving students choice in education.
“I appreciate the sponsor’s analogy to fast food restaurants but (public) education isn’t fast food,” Hamilton said. “And we don’t necessarily have quality at McDonald’s, we have popularity, and I’m really concerned about what this will mean.”
And Montana Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman, a former Havre Public Schools superintendent, said this morning that the charter school bill defeat Tuesday is not the end of the story. OPI expects an attempt today to revive the charter school bill, and the office still is in opposition to the other school choice bills being debated, he said.
“They’re all in the same light, and we’ll oppose those bills just on their merit,” Parman said.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said during Tuesday’s session that a bill proposed by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, would help improve the funding system in Montana public schools and improve what he called an already excellent program.
Jergeson said he is reminded of something he heard — primarily from conservative legislators — when he first was elected.
“Don’t try to fix something that ain’t broke … ,” he said. “I’m a little concerned, quite frankly, that this push for the various manifestations of charter schools is about trying to fix something that’s not broke.”
School choice a major issue for Republican majority
The idea of changing regulation of charter schools and providing tax benefits or savings accounts for people who take their children from Montana’s public school system has been a major topic for more than a year.
Republican Sandy Welch, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Democrat Denise Juneau in her re-election campaign for superintendent of public instruction, said while she was running she would look at charter schools and funding options to increase school choice.
After Hansen was elected to her second term and was appointed chair of the Education Committee, she said the closeness of that race — Juneau won by 2,231 votes — showed that Montana voters support the ideas on which Welch ran, and that she wanted to look at establishing charter schools and setting up education savings accounts and tax benefits for parents using alternatives to public education.
This session, some six bills have been proposed to take those actions.
They include the charter school bill defeated Tuesday and a bill introduced by Hansen, yet to be voted on in its final reading in the House, setting up an educational savings account.
The debate has created a sharp, generally partisan, divide on the issue.
Supporters say the existing public school system does not address the needs of all Montana students, and the proposals would create new options — a choice — for those students.
Opponents say the proposals are a blatant attempt to divert public money from the public schools into a private education system, adding that they believe that is in direct violation of the Montana Constitution.
Public or private?
A main question on the charter school proposal that went down Tuesday was whether the new schools would be public or private. Montana law allows charter schools to be established now under the jurisdiction of existing school districts and the Office of Public Instruction.
Hamilton asked that of Hansen. She noted that the bill excludes the charter schools created from Title 20 of Montana law, the rules and regulations that govern all Montana public schools.
“I’m wondering why, if this is truly a public school association that you’re setting up, that they’re exempt from the Title 20 regulations,” Hamilton said.
“The point of a charter school is to give the chartering entity, the charter operator, essentially freedom from the accreditation standards,” Hansen said. “That is, really, the point of the charter school bill, and in order to do that, the exemption is necessary.”
She said the accountability is built into the bill — the charters would be approved by existing school districts or universities or colleges or an appointed commission created in the bill. Those entities would have the experience in operating public schools to decide whether a proposed charter — the business plan of the school, she said — should be approved.
“There is substantial accountability built in there,” she said, adding that the bill also describes the educational programs and educational accountability that the charter school will have.
“Charter school students will also have to take the same state-level test that all the other public school students have to take,” Hansen said.
Other charter school issues
Hamilton said there are other problems with accountability, including that once the school is turned over to a private business to provide education, all accountability is after-the-fact.
She said charter schools across the country have closed or had problems, and the governments in their states have, at times, had to call in the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Education to determine where money was spent, and to try to collect money from businesses that sometimes have moved out of the state or out of the country.
Another issue is moving from school to school — will the parents of students have any guarantee that the credits from a charter or private school subsidized by the state transfer back to the public schools? Hamilton asked.
“This is huge, and this bill doesn’t speak to any of that … ,” she said. “I hope that you’re taking into consideration those problems, not just those success stories, that other states are having when we’re looking at examples for this kind of education, and considering the financial and educational impact on people and schools and students in Montana.”
Huge potential financial impact
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Andy Carlson said he had received calls from a number of superintendents asking him to speak on the issue at the video conference.
He said the bills proposed would cut funding for schools in an amount ranging from 65 percent per student in some bills to 100 percent in others.
He said the bills provide a list of expenses that would be used to compute the amount for each school — translating, for Havre High School, to $8,000 per student at 65 percent of that cost.
That would be cut from the money the state provides that goes into the Havre High School general fund — a loss of $80,000 if 10 students used the program.
“My general fund budget, folks, is 85 percent personnel,” Carlson said. “What that means is programs and services.”
He said at North Star High School, which serves Kremlin, Gildford, Hingham and Rudyard, two students leaving would cost $32,000. That cut also would happen in the fall, while the budget is set in the previous spring.
North Star’s new superintendent next fall would have to deal with that, Carlson said.
“He’s got to make plans. That means teachers,” Carlson said.
He added that the public schools are not exempt from Title 20 — they still have to meet accreditation standards.
Carlson said Havre probably could survive — although likely by dropping to a Class B school — because it has extras. The high school has two music teachers and is required to have one, its vocational programs are not required, it is not required to offer advanced placement college preparatory classes, and those could be cut.
“I know, in the smaller districts, they’re looking at shutting their doors,” he said. “If they’re looking at (losing) $30,000 to $60,000, they can’t meet accreditation standards.”
Parman said in an interview last week that the fiscal note on the bill is a bit misleading — on the state level, there seems to be none. The state is paying money to a savings account instead of to a school district, so there is no fiscal impact.
But the local school district would no longer receive that funding.
“The local school district would feel the impact of that,” Parman said.
Hansen said amendments to bills are being drafted that would change the funding, basing it on the average-number-belonging used in the school funding process rather than the total student funding computations now in the bills.
“I think that would alleviate a substantial amount of your concerns,” she said, adding that OPI would not assist in drafting the bills, leading to some of the computations used and now proposed for amendment.
At Monday’s hearing, that lead to the numbers being cited.
“I’m not going to play along with the fear mongering,” Hansen said. “We’re not going to do that to any school. … We can make it an appropriate number that more closely approximates what student funding is.”
Carlson called the Havre Daily News later to address that comment.
“I just want to make it clear as far as it’s not fear mongering,” he said. “I want to talk about real schools, real dollars, and the real impacts that it’s going to have on real communities in Montana.”
Parman said this morning that OPI did not refuse to help with the bills.
“If people call us and ask us for information, we provide it,” he said. “We were never called by Legislative Fiscal Division. We were not called by Rep. Hansen.”
Debating the need for changing the schools
Hansen said there is a need for change — when a company started offering $500,000 in private school scholarships last year, they were snapped up in a month.
“There are parents who need this,” she said. “There are parents who want this.”
She said she agrees that Montana schools are doing an excellent job with the 82 percent of their students who graduate, but the school choice bills are trying to provide opportunities, as required by the Montana Constitution, for all students.
“We also let 18 percent of the kids fall through the cracks,” she said.
Parman said in an interview last week that that is not so.
The number being used is the number of students who do not graduate in four years — some of whom drop out, but others do graduate, he said.
“The whole dropout rate thing is a fabrication,” Parman said.
OPI public information officer Allyson Hagen said that the actual Montana dropout rate is 4.1 percent.
Parman added that local schools already have the ability — which will be expanded when new rules on school variances go into effect in July — to provide alternatives for their students.
“If a local public school wanted to start an innovative school — a dance school, for example, if they wanted to start a dance-themed school in Havre — they have all of the authority under the law to do it,” he said.
Parman last week — and Jergeson, Carlson, Hamilton and Havre Public Schools Director of Education Leland Stocker at Tuesday’s video conference — said Montana schools already are doing well, better than most of the nation, and improvements are being made and more could be made.
“And so, all of this begs the question, why? And is there a problem?” Parman asked. “And the answer, really, has been a silent response that there is, and we’ve heard a few things that we think fabricate a crisis or an epidemic there — but there aren’t problems, so that is our general stance.”