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Controversial education bills signed into Montana law

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a series of education bills into law. Proponents praise expanded opportunities for parents and children; opponents pledge court action.  (Courtesy of Montana Governor's Office)
By Keila Szpaller Daily Montanan

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed Friday a controversial special education bill, a pair of charter school bills, and other education legislation – and opponents pledged a couple of the measures would be in court in short order and deemed unconstitutional.

“Our focus in education is and has always been advancing commonsense reforms to support teachers, empower parents, and help students reach their full potential,” said Gianforte, a Republican, in a statement from his office. “We made great progress on that this legislative session, delivering wins that will open the doors to greater opportunity for young Montanans.”

Sponsored by Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, HB 562 is one of the two charter school bills, and proponents of “school choice” supported the bill during the session. It will operate outside the current public education system and allow unlicensed teachers to be hired.

In a statement from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Vinton praised the law.

“Our community choice school bill recognizes that parents are asking for more options in our education system,” Vinton said. “This bill will expand our educational offerings and empower parents and students to pursue the best possible education that fits their child’s needs.

“I was honored to carry the bill and so proud and appreciative of all the support we received from parents all across Montana.”

But in a statement, Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton criticized the bill.

“School trustees across Montana have an elected responsibility to make sure our public schools are accountable to taxpayers,” Melton said. “By creating a system of taxation without representation, HB 562 would allow these new charter schools to hide their staffing, finances, curriculum, and performance from taxpayers. That’s unconstitutional.”

The other charter school bill is House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls. Anderson’s bill will allow more public charter schools to open, but generally within the existing education system, and public education supporters generally backed it.

House Bill 393, called the “Students with Special Needs Equal Opportunity Act,” is similar to a school vouchers bill that failed last session. It allows parents with students who have special needs the ability to be reimbursed with taxpayer money for their child’s private education through a special savings account – a setup one opponent earlier described as laundering public money.

In an email, the Montana Quality Education Coalition said HB 562 and HB 393 will be before a judge in short order.

“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 a statement. “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.”

Lawyers with legislative services found potential constitutional problems with both of the charter school bills and the special education bill.

However, Gianforte’s office praised the special education bill as reaching students who have unique needs and the charter school bills as being “pro student” and “pro parent.”

“Government should never stand between parents and their kid’s education,” Gianforte said in a statement. “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.”

Through the legislative process, “school choice” proponents praised the bills, and in a statement from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Trish Schreiber praised the work to get the bill to the finish line.

“This was a colossal effort, 24 years in the making, that ultimately was accomplished by having a strong relationship with the National Alliance in conjunction with the right bill, the right sponsor, the right leadership in both chambers and, of course, the right governor,” Schreiber said.

But members of the public education community, including the Montana Federation of Public Employees, opposed HB 562 and HB 393.

In a statement Friday, MFPE President Amanda Curtis again said the bills will be found illegal.

“It’s unfortunate to see that corporate lobbyists won out over Montanans,” Curtis said in a statement. “A bipartisan array of legislators came up just short of killing these unconstitutional diversions of scarce funds from our local public schools to unaccountable corporations.

“We’re confident these bills will be invalidated before they jack up Montanans’ property taxes, rob voters of our right to elect school boards, and sell off our kids’ Article X right to free, quality public schools.”

In MQEC’s email, the organization noted its partners include 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: “The board voted to hire counsel and file lawsuits challenging both HB 562 and HB 393 in the coming weeks.”

In a news release, the governor’s office noted he also signed the following:

House Bill 408, which increases the caps of the Big Sky Scholarship Program and Innovative Education Program from $2 million to $5 million. The program offers a rare dollar-for-dollar tax credit for two education programs, one public and one private. It was sponsored by Vinton.

House Bill 749, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, strengthens the Montana Digital Academy and expands opportunities for students regardless of where they live, according to the Governor’s Office: “The Montana Digital Academy offers students virtual curriculum that might not be available in their physical school that they can access anytime and anywhere.”House Bill 214, which complements HB 749 and is sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, “authorizes open enrollment in virtual learning courses that best meet the individual students’ needs,” the Governor’s Office said.

“Thanks to technology, traditional geographic boundaries are no longer a constraint in education, and we’re transforming how we deliver traditional K-12 education,” the governor said.

The Governor’s Office also touted an expansion of education opportunities for “nonpublic and home school students,” who may partially enroll in public schools with House Bill 396, sponsored by Rep. Naarah Hastings, R-Billings.

Additionally, he signed into law House Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, to standardize enrollment in Montana public schools.

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