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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers consider bills allowing public charter schools in Montana

Montana lawmakers are considering proposals allowing public charter school options and tax credits for parents who send special needs students to private schools.

The bills at the state Legislature provide avenues for parents to reroute their tax dollars from their local public school to public charter or private schools. Rep. Sue Vinton, a Republican from Billings, says the goal is to make alternative education more accessible.

“Families need flexibility in accessing the most appropriate educational setting for their child,” Vinton said.

While some parents spoke in support, public school advocates say they’re worried about the diversion of funds away from public education.

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, says the bills could be financially detrimental to school districts and put public funds into entities with less regulation.

“We will be coming to sue the state of Montana for failing to adequately fund a quality public education for every kid,” Curtis said.

House Bill 562 would allow the creation of public charter schools, which are schools governed by independent groups autonomous of some state regulations. Montana is one of five states without public charter schools.

A cost estimate assumes the bill could result in the creation of five charter schools and rerouting of $2.5 million to those schools. But public education advocates say that’s an arbitrary estimate, and the number of charter schools could be much higher.

House Bill 393 would create a special needs savings account in which parents could put tax dollars and in return, get help paying for private or home school options for a student with disabilities.

Lawmakers had questions about the projected $450,000 annual cost to public schools with the diversion of tax dollars, and that projection notes there’s uncertainty about how many students would participate. The Montana School Boards Association offered a second analysis showing the bill could result in up to a $14 million loss to school district budgets.

Both bills have passed initial votes in the House of Representatives and now await consideration by the House’s budget committee.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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