The House Appropriations Committee on Friday discussed the fiscal implications of one of two bills that outline methods of setting up charter schools in Montana.
Sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, House Bill 549 would require applicants for a charter school to approach the local school board first. The board has the opportunity to adjust the district’s programming to encompass the applicant’s request.
If the board agrees to the applicant’s proposal to form a charter, the charter school would be under the supervision of the elected trustees of the school board.
If the board rejects the application, the applicant can then go to the Montana Board of Public Education to request the charter school. If approved, the school must have a seven-member governing board.
HB 549 also describes in detail the specific items that must be included with the charter school’s application.
The state general fund cost of this bill, according to the fiscal note, is estimated to be $147,166 in 2024 and $1 million in 2025.
Anderson said the original fiscal note planned for one charter school to be up and running by fiscal year 2025. The fiscal note now projects for five charter schools by that time.
“I believe the probability of that is slim to none,” Anderson said.
“I think the most likely outcome of what you’re going to see in the first biennium is nothing, but you’re going to come to the next legislative session with some applications that are probably going to be approved stacked up,” said Lance Melton of the Montana School Boards Association.
Melton said if the funds for this bill were approved, he expected a reversion of those funds as unspent.
Rachel Prevost of the Montana Farmers Union spoke as the bill’s only opponent, saying they have concerns that the bill will undermine and underfund rural public schools.
Rep. Terry Falk, R-Kalispell, questioned whether or not the bill was even needed, as charters schools have already been successfully set up in Montana, including in Bozeman.
Anderson answered that there was no finite way to judge how much need there is going to be for those schools. Anderson pointed out that there are two charter school bills in this session and the last several sessions have had similar bills.
“And so I think from a public perspective, they feel there’s a need for one. How much activity is going to happen in the next biennium or the next five to six years, I think it’s anybody’s speculation,” Anderson said.
Much of the language in HB 549 is contained in the other charter school bill, House Bill 562. The main difference is that charter schools under HB 562 would not be held to Title 20 regulations.
Of most concern to opponents and proponents of HB 562, Title 20 outlines accreditation requirements. It also contains language regarding Indian Education for All, bullying prohibitions, special education, school elections, discipline and punishment for students and discipline for teachers.
In addition, HB 562 would allow charter schools to appoint their boards rather than using a board elected by the public. The schools’ funding model will also differ from those outlined in HB 549.
The House Appropriations Committee will hear HB 562 on March 23.
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