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Lawmakers divided on school issues

Contention came up in Havre about proposals in the Legislature to change forms of schools and school funding during Tuesday's video conference in the Robins School Administration building with local legislators in Havre.

At several points, people brought up discussions of bills that would provide tax credits or create savings accounts for people who take their children from established public schools, and to change the existing rules on the creation of charter schools.

Karen Sloan of Havre, who unsuccessfully ran for the Legislature as a Democrat last fall, told Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, chair of the House Education Committee, that she opposes the bills dealing with creation of charter schools.

"When you talk about a public charter school, it really is an oxymoron, because a charter school is not a public school, " Sloan said.

Hansen had talked about charter schools in response to a question from Hill County Commission Chair Mike Wendland, who said a teacher had asked him about what retirement plans would be available in a charter school under the proposal.

Hansen said the charter schools could opt to participate in the state retirement system, or set up their own retirement plans. If a school opted for the public system, a teacher going to work for the school could transfer their plan, she said.

Sloan said the proposal would shift public money to private schools, and let those schools "jump into" the public retirement system.

"The whole thing just doesn't fit together, " she said. "I think it's a shame that so much time is being spent on diminishing effectiveness of our Montana public schools. "

Hansen said she agrees that the Montana schools, in Havre and elsewhere, do well in comparison with the rest of the nation "and I disagree with absolutely everything else that you just said. They are not private schools, they they are public schools, and they can be an integral part of the public school system. … I think it could add some vibrancy to the school systems in Montana. "

Havre City Council Alderman Rick Dow said he supports Hansen's efforts on the charter schools and on finding ways, through tax credits and creation of an education savings account, to provide greater flexibility.

Dow said his family has sent their children to a private Havre school because of the Judeo-Christian values embedded in that school.

Hansen, who with Sen. Greg Jergeson, had to cut questions at the video conference short and leave to return to the session, did not reply to emails sent Tuesday and this morning, or to emails sent starting in December, to ask why the existing rules allowing school districts to create Montana charter schools need to be changed.

Under that rule, existing school districts can apply to the Office of Public Instruction to create a charter school with, for example, a focus on construction such as the YouthBuild program like Hansen suggested during the video conference could be created if the bill is passed.

She also did not reply to questions asking if creation of tax credits or savings accounts could violate Montana Constitution's Article X, Section 6, which prohibits the state from providing any funding for schools run by or associated with churches or religious organizations.

Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, also did not respond to emails and a text sent asking about those issues.

Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Hays, emailed this morning that much of the discussion of the proposals has been about benefitting depressed areas.

"But there is more than meets the eye, " she emailed, "for private schools scholarships. There is no way a school on or near a reservation would benefit. "

Jergeson also replied to the emails, saying he doesn't know why the existing charter school provisions need to be changed.

"I believe the ultimate goal of the current charter champions is to establish a largely privatized, separate system not subject to the checks and balances in the existing public school framework, " he said in his email.

He also said he agrees with Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau that the savings accounts or tax proposals could violate the state constitution.

"People can like or dislike provisions of the Constitution as they choose, " he emailed. "But the Legislature as a whole, and individual legislators by virtue of their oath of office, are obligated to observe the provisions of the Constitution. Since the bills creating these tax credit, etc, scenarios are not offered as amendments to the Constitution, I have to believe they are little more than lawyer bait since they will necessarily result in protracted and costly litigation. "

Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said in a telephone interview this morning that the charter school bill would help create new options, suggesting a Cree language immersion school could be created by a new board established to create a charter school.

He said the conception that the bill sends public money to private schools is incorrect — the newly created boards that would establish charter schools would be public, but the bill would expand options.

"There are provisions in there that will allow local authorities to use approaches that are outside the box, " he said.

When asked why such a school could not be created under existing law by an existing school board, Windy Boy said he needed to review existing law and the bill and other issues. He later sent an email, saying, "There is a much higher degree of autonomy with (House Bill 315) in exchange for a much higher level of academic and fiscal accountability to the public, parents and students. "

He also sent an email citing court decisions in Arizona and Illinois that ruled that programs similar to the proposed tax credits and savings accounts were constitutional in those states.

Earlier in the video conference, before Hansen had arrived from the floor of the House, Jergeson said a coalition of senators is backing a proposal by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, drafted in coalition with a number of Montana education associations including unions and school board and superintendents associations, to revise education funding.

Sloan asked at that point if people should be going to attend hearings and debates on the funding and charter schools bills.

Jergeson said that his sense is that the proposals will receive more support in the House than the Senate. The same coalition supporting Jones' bill would likely oppose the charter schools and tax and savings accounts proposals, he said.


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