House bills 549 and 562 both focus on the creation of bills that would found new charter schools for the state of Montana.

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In January of 2024, the Montana Board of Public Education approved the creation of nineteen public charter schools. These schools address a variety of needs, from multilingual students in Bozeman to teacher recruitment and retention in my district in Great Falls. HB 549, which was sponsored by former school administrator turned legislator Dr. Fred Anderson, was one of two charter school bills drafted during the 2023 legislative session. HB 549 authorized public charter schools which would be governed by the Board of Public Education and mandated to adhere to Montana State law.

House Bill 562: Community Choice Charter Schools

On the other hand, the second bill, HB 562, created “community choice” schools. These charter schools would be governed by a special commission and their appointed school boards. Community choice schools would not have to abide by any of  Montana’s public education laws, including the Indian Education for All Act. 

Montana’s Indian Education for All Act, the first of its kind in the nation, requires all public school students to learn about American Indians in a culturally responsive way. Laws like this exist for excellent reasons and benefit all students and staff. Something that is not required or mandated usually gets overlooked or ignored.

Schools formed under HB 562 could potentially ignore laws they are not mandated to enforce, which is why I signed up to be a member legislative organizer for the Montana Federation of Public Employees during the 2023 legislative season. This job entailed communicating with our membership about the bills coming before the legislature and the union’s stance on each bill.

We MLOs organized “parties” to write postcards and letters to the editor to support members as they communicated with their local legislators regarding their voting. Montana’s recent legislative session was tumultuous, to say the least. A major bone of contention was a provision in HB 562 to divert public funds to nonpublic charter schools. Public school administrators, teachers, and other advocates lobbied against using public funds for private schools due to a state constitutional amendment, a No-Aid clause originally enacted in 1889 prohibiting public funds to aid private schools. I joined the fight to defeat both problematic bills, but Gov. Gianforte signed them into law. 

HB 549: Public Charter Schools Bill

However, I must admit I feel a great deal of hope and excitement about the creation of public charter schools, as outlined by HB 549. Montana has a long history of providing quality public education, but we also have a tradition of resisting innovation. I grew up in Great Falls, and the school day for my students doesn’t look very different from my experience here in the 1980s. In my nearly 30 years of teaching, little has changed. American education has reached a tipping point, and we must innovate or die. I do not think we need to throw the baby out with the bath water, however. Public schools, especially in Montana, do an outstanding job with the resources they are given. Depriving schools of funding will not lead to innovation, and hiring unqualified staff and board members to oversee a school will not lead to increased student achievement. 

Evaluating Innovation

One criterion on which the Board of Public Education evaluated the public charter school applications was innovation. Given this freedom, school districts seized the opportunity to innovate on their own. Great Falls CORE School certainly meets this expectation.

CORE stands for Creation of teachers; Opportunities for students; Respect for the uniqueness of our community; Excellence in education. This reimagined school in Great Falls will be an elementary school staffed with local teachers and will follow the same curriculum standards as the other schools in town. One key difference will be a partnership with a teacher prep program at the University of Montana-Western. Starting in the fall of 2024, education majors will work and learn alongside district teachers. In exchange for completing their degrees a year sooner than other students, they agree to teach in Montana for three years. Another benefit to pre-service teachers will be a paycheck. Normally, a student teacher does not get paid.

The newly named principal of this public charter school is Jennifer Martyn, who has a varied background in working with students from kindergarten to post-secondary. Martyn commented on the Great Falls Public website, “I am so excited to support our district’s efforts to provide continued high quality education to elementary students and to prepare future teachers through the CORE school opportunity.”

The lawsuit continues

While innovative public charter schools prepare for the upcoming school year, the lawsuit against HB 562 continues. Judge Chris Abbott partially blocked implementation of the bill over challenges to the constitutionality of the law. According to the preliminary injunction, as written, HB 562 “invades” the authority of the Board of Public Education by giving a School Choice Commission autonomy to operate but also stating the commission is under the supervision of the Board of Public Education. In addition, the bill declares choice schools are public when, in fact, they have both private and public attributes. The School Choice Commission will be allowed to hire staff and approve by-laws. It cannot, however, actually authorize any schools while the injunction is in effect. 

Next steps in Montana

 I feel Mrs. Martyn’s excitement as Montana embraces innovation to meet the changing and challenging needs of not just our 21st-century students but also our 21st-century teachers. Public charter schools are an important part of the future of American education, and I am pleased to see Montana’s efforts to innovate as more and more school systems across the country do the same. 

Shelley O’Rourke, the outgoing chair of the School Library Division of the Montana Library Association, is about to retire from her position as a middle school librarian. She is an enthusiastic advocate of project-based learning and information literacy. Outside of work, she and her middle school math teacher husband raise three nearly grown children and twice that many four-legged pets on two acres in the Last Best Place. 

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