HELENA — The bill that will set state funding for Montana public schools the next two years may include something else bound to cause a political fight: Language authorizing “charter schools” in Montana.
Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, the sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House-Senate conference committee that begins work on the measure Monday, said last week that he hopes Senate Bill 329 will be amended to include language allowing experimental charter schools.
“At the end of the day, we’ll have an opportunity for charter schools to exist in law, and exist within the (public school) system,” he said. “I think it will be a vehicle for innovation.”
Charter schools, which aren’t authorized in current Montana law, are new, experimental schools that would not be subject to many regulations that govern regular public schools.
Supporters of charter schools say they can offer innovative, targeted instruction that can appeal to students or families who don’t feel comfortable with the regular public schools.
Opponents — including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and the union representing teachers in Montana — say charter schools are a thinly veiled attempt to siphon public money away from the school system to experimental schools that are essentially private schools.
Last week, the Senate Education Committee, which Zinke also chairs, killed House Bill 603, a bill to create a system of public charter schools.
Zinke said HB603, sponsored by Rep. Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, went too far in allowing a charter school system independent of the public school system. The plans for amending SB329 “will be much different than 603,” he said.
Whatever the charter school language looks like, it will raise the political stakes on SB329, which, for now, appears to be the vehicle for setting public school funding the next two years.
Eight working days remain in the 2011 Legislature, which must approve a school funding bill. If the bill includes charter school language, it risks a veto by Schweitzer.
Schweitzer said last week that he is opposed to creating a “parallel school system” that would siphon money away from public schools, which only two years ago closed out a lawsuit that challenged state funding as unconstitutionally low.
“We are on the precipice of getting sued again,” he said. “I don’t think taking some of the money (for schools) and moving it over to a private school is a good idea.”
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union representing teachers, also said the governor’s office has told him that any form of charter school legislation will be vetoed.
Feaver said Montana already allows and has experimental schools within the public school system, and that a Board of Public Education rule allows charter schools to be created within the system — under certain parameters. The experimental school must have licensed teachers, allow collective bargaining and meet accreditation standards.
“You have school choice in Montana; we’ve had it in the public sector forever,” he said.
Yet charter schools are not in state law — and without that change, Montana can’t get certain federal funding for schools.
Zinke said he intends that the charter school proposal in SB329 won’t cause public schools to lose funds, and will allow for federal grants and private donations to finance a charter school.
“There’s a lot of potential here to provide a vision for the future of education,” he said. “I’m excited about it, because I think there’s potential.”
SB329 also will determine how much state money goes to schools the next two years, and where that money comes from — which may be just as contentious as charter schools.
Zinke said he expects the money in SB329 to be close to what Schweitzer has proposed, or nearly $1.5 billion, and that some of that money will come from oil and gas revenue that now goes to petroleum-producing school districts.