Hill brings back proposal to change charter schools
Local districts oppose changes proposed
Last updated 3/23/2021 at 3:13pm
The legislator representing Havre is bringing back a regular entry to the Legislature, a proposal to change how charter schools operate in the state.
Rep. Ed Hill sponsored House Bill 633, which would create an independent commission that would review proposals to create charter schools. Under Hill's bill, the schools would qualify for state public funding if they met goals, but would not be regulated under the section of Montana law governing public education, Title 20.
In an email Sunday, Hill said he would respond to Havre Daily News' questions and "assumptions" once the bill is voted on in committee.
Montana law already allows charter schools, with one in operation in Bozeman, and local superintendents said both that the changes are not needed and that they could cause problems.
Local legislators mainly said they are not familiar with Hill's proposal and could not comment on it at the moment, although Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, who sponsored a charter school bill in 2017, said he has reservations.
He also noted that the Republican legislators, on near party lines, rejected an amendment he sponsored this morning to bring back $200,000 in funding for Montana State University-Northern's biodiesel lab, used to help pay for administrative costs at the lab, one of the top alternative fuel labs in the nation.
Windy Boy said that vote, including "no" votes by Reps. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, and Ed Hill raises questions about their support of education, although he added he will keep working to get it back in.
"It's not over till Day 90," Windy Boy said.
He said when he sponsored charter school legislation in 2017, he was trying to reach a middle-of-the-road bill to help students in his district, but he is concerned that the bills coming out in this Legislature have swung radically to the right, "off the Richter Scale," he said.
"I would support some conservative bills to some extent, but probably not this session," he said. "Some things are getting out-of-hand."
Bills proposing changing Montana's regulation of charter schools have been brought up regularly in the Montana Legislature since at least 2011.
Montana allows school districts to create publicly funded charter schools - as Bozeman has done with The Bridger Charter Academy - but they must follow all regulation and accreditation requirements in the state to receive funding and be under the jurisdiction of Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education.
Hill's bill would remove that regulation by exempting the schools from MCA Title 20.
Hill said when the bill was discussed in committee Wednesday that Montana is one of the last five states not to allow charter schools, and it is time to allow them, adding that Montana can draw on what other states have done in creating its system.
Several administrators commented that Montana law already allows public schools.
Superintendent Ron Goodman in Libby said his district, before he was superintendent but was the high school principal, had a charter school approved, in conjunction between Libby, Troy and Eureka.
He said the three-district model just didn't work out.
"There was lots of good about it but it was too difficult getting things scheduled," Goodman said.
Chinook Superintendent Darrin Hannum said he is against the bill.
"There is already in law a way for charter schools to be funded and through local school boards direction with approval of the Board of Education," he said.
Turner Superintendent Tony Warren made similar comments.
"Charter schools are already allowed under state law as long as they remain under the control of a locally elected board of trustees," he said. "I see this bill as an opportunity to utilize public dollars to design a school with zero accountability measures. Rep. Hill made no efforts to contact schools on the Hi-Line to have a dialogue with districts regarding this bill."
North Star Schools Superintendent Bart Hawkins also said he is worried about impacts.
"You end up with public dollars to a school with no public oversight," he said. 'In my opinion that isn't right and (allowing charter schools) already is in the law.
"I think that, ultimately, it could be harmful to smaller schools that, in my opinion, provide a pretty good education," he added.
Havre Interim Superintendent Craig Mueller also said he opposes the bill, and cited information provided by Montana School Board Association saying the bill "would have extended and seriously detrimental impacts to public education, it creates an entirely separate, publicly funded charter school system that would be unaccountable to local communities and taxpayers while being exempted from the entirety of Title 20."
"The school board association calls it 'likely to be one of the most significant assaults on local control and quality education during this session,'" Mueller said.