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Montana legislators endorse bills on charter schools, 'school choice'

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HELENA – The state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a bill allowing public charter schools in Montana, but not before a razor-close vote watered down the proposal by limiting any new charter school’s independence from state education rules.

Also Wednesday, the Montana House endorsed a separate “school choice” measure, which creates $550 income tax credits for Montana families who send their kids to private schools.

The bills are two of the three school choice bills still alive at the 2013 Legislature. Each measure endorsed Wednesday faces a final vote this week before advancing to the next legislative house for further hearings and votes.

Montana is one of only eight states that do not allow charter schools, which often are run by groups outside the public school bureaucracy and offer special curriculums, designed to appeal to students whose needs may not be met by regular public schools.

The Montana House killed a charter school bill last month, but on Wednesday the Senate voted 34-16 to advance Senate Bill 374, another measure that would allow the creation of publicly funded charter schools.

Yet the Senate also voted 26-24 to amend the bill, to say any charter school must be created within a school district and approved by the local school and the state Board of Public Education. The amendment also said any charter school must meet accreditation standards and negotiate contracts with any affected labor groups.

Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, the sponsor of the bill, and most other Republicans opposed the amendment, saying it would make it more difficult to start a truly innovative charter school.

“This (amendment) does nothing to advance charter schools,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. “With this amendment, it will be extremely difficult to get a charter school off the ground in Montana.”

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, the amendment’s sponsor, said without changes contained in the amendment, the bill has little chance of passing the Legislature or being signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

“So, do we want a piece of it, or do we want none of it?” he asked. “What’s going to get through and signed into law?”

Seven Republicans joined 19 Democrats in supporting the amendment, while 22 Republicans and two Democrats opposed it.

Supporters of charter schools said the schools are not “some wild and crazy idea,” but a proven method of offering alternative education for children who are struggling or may drop out in regular public schools.

“The history and the results that have come from using this alternative form of education … have been good,” Lewis said. “There are kids who are down in the dumps about a system that doesn’t work for them. We need to look at this.”

Yet opponents said kids who don’t do well in school usually come from families who aren’t engaged with their kids’ education, and creating charter schools won’t change that fact.

“Those parents are not going to be the type to go and find a really dandy charter school to serve the needs of their children,” said Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook. “It’s just not going to happen.”

He said funding charter schools will draw resources away from public schools, which need the money.

With little debate, the House voted 56-43 Wednesday to endorse Senate Bill 213, which creates the $550 annual tax credit for any parent or grandparent of a student attending a nonpublic school.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, the sponsor of the bill, said most agree that school choice is good for some kids, and that it’s just a question of how to accomplish it.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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