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District court stalls lawmakers' plans for charter schools in Montana

A Helena judge earlier this week partially stalled state lawmakers’ plans to set up a new system of charter schools in Montana. There were mixed reactions from both sides of the issue.

The decision from Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott sets the stage for further debate on the constitutionality of charter schools in Montana. Abbott on Wednesday blocked part of a new law, which would allow the state to approve the schools, until the court reaches a final decision.

That came as a relief to Billings science teacher Jessica Felchle, who joined a group of public school advocates suing to overturn the law.

“This would divert those public funds to schools with zero accountability,” Felchle told MTPR. “I mean, so many red flags, and so many issues with it being unconstitutional”

Judge Abbott agreed with the plaintiffs that the charter schools’ oversight structure would likely violate Montana’s Constitution. The plaintiffs argued the schools should be under the direct supervision of the Board of Public Education, not a commission created by lawmakers.

Republican Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton of Billings said the Board of Public Education would have “obvious oversight” over the charter school commission under the embattled law. The law states the commission will be “under the supervision” of the Board of Public Education, but also describes the commission as autonomous.

Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton speaking on the House floor in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023 shortly before Republicans voted to formally punish Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton speaking on the House floor in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023 shortly before Republicans voted to formally punish Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr.

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising,” Vinton said in a phone interview. “That’s the liberal way of dealing with legislation that they don’t agree with.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a defendant in the case, said in an emailed statement that she was discouraged by the legal challenge. She added no decision has been made about whether the state will appeal the injunction.

Montana charter school commission takes shape amid legal debate

The court decision does allow the newly appointed Community Choice School Commission, which is in charge of the charter school system, to begin meeting and getting organized. The panel’s chairperson, Trish Shrieber of Helmville, praised that choice in a statement published by the right-leaning think-tank Frontier Institute.

Party leaders in the state House and Senate each appointed one person to the commission. Republican Speaker of the House Matt Regier chose Kalispell businessman Mark Hufstetler.

“Mark’s a visionary. Like I said, he’s a businessman and an entrepreneur, and I think that’s what this is going to take,” Regier told MTPR in a phone call. “I mean, the whole notion of charter schools here is to create more choice.”

Republican Senate President Jason Ellsworth selected former state lawmaker and Columbia Falls teacher Dee Brown.

Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, a Democrat, appointed a teacher at Bozeman High School’s alternative program, Emily Hessler. Democrats largely opposed the law that paved the way for public charter schools earlier this year.

Flowers told MTPR he doesn’t want charter schools to take resources from the state’s public school system.

“With our appointment, we’re hoping to ensure transparency and accountability to the program,” Flowers said.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott selected Helena elementary teacher Katy Wright for a spot on the commission.

Gov. Greg Gianforte announced his two appointments in August. Montana’s top K-12 school official Elsie Arntzen picked retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and college professor Gary Carlson to round out the seven-member panel.

Public school advocates earlier this year challenged the constitutionality of the new charter school law, arguing in part that the schools needed to be under the supervision of the Board of Public Education, not the newly formed Community Choice School Commission — a panel created by the Legislature.

Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Christopher Abbott agreed with that argument, and issued an injunction prohibiting the charter school commission from greenlighting schools until the law’s constitutionality can be fully debated in court.

The commission must meet and organize before the end of the year, according to law.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

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