Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday signed two bills to allow public charter schools in Montana. Even fellow Republicans in the waning days of the session acknowledged they were likely to end up in court, and an education group said Friday they will sue.
The bills were House Bill 562 from Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, and House Bill 549, from Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls.
While both bills allow for the formation of charter schools, they created that process in different ways. Anderson’s first offers up an opportunity for involvement with the local school board while Vinton’s instead has a separate commission to validate schools. Anderson's bill would also hold the schools accountable to existing education and licensure laws and rules, while Vinton’s does not to the same degree, though she told legislators it still has accountability provisions.
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Both bills were initially killed off in the Senate but brought back after Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, of Great Falls, told a caucus meeting that they were part of an end-game package necessary in the final days of the legislative session.
Fitzpatrick acknowledged he also wasn't fully enamored with charter schools, but told the caucus then: "We need to get these issues resolved. We should pass this bill and let the courts decide if it’s valid or not.” The bills cleared with support from Republicans and opposition from a small group of the GOP and Democrats.
In a statement, Gianforte said he supported both approaches to charter school creation.
“Government should never stand between parents and their kid’s education,” Gianforte, a Republican, said. “We’re empowering Montana parents to choose what’s best for their family and their kids. We’re putting students and parents first in education.”
A lawsuit against the bills is expected from the Montana Quality Education Coalition. In a press release Friday, the group — which includes the Montana School Board Association, Montana Federation of Public Employees, School Administrators of Montana, Montana Rural Education Association, Montana Association of School Business Officials, and 98 school districts — said its board had voted to hire a lawyer and file lawsuits challenging both policies.
“MQEC and our partners have defended Montanans’ Article X constitutional right to free, quality public schools for over 20 years,” said MQEC Executive Director Doug Reisig in an emailed press release. “Legislators from both parties recognized HB 562 and HB 393 as both unconstitutional and terrible policy. We’ll bring the necessary lawsuits to clean up these constitutional mistakes.”
Holly Michels is the head of the Montana State News Bureau. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org