A User’s Guide to Montana’s Nascent Education Freedom Laws
"With the focus on funding individual educational choices of students rather than on the geographical location of schools, Montana families will finally be the drivers of their children’s education."
Though considered standard across the nation, it took Montana 24 years to pass its first true charter school law, now known as the Community Choice Schools Act (CCS). In contrast, in a matter of two sessions, the legislature advanced a Special Needs Equal Opportunity Education Savings Account (SNEO ESA), something only a dozen states have achieved. These new laws empower parents to make personal and individualized choices about the use of public education funds. Equipped with new means, Montanans can now create diverse public school options and develop markets offering specialized educational services.
CCS enable average citizens to design unique, mission-focused public schools. The operational regulations housed in Title 20 have led traditional schools to look fairly similar throughout the state, uniformly resulting in subpar proficiency outcomes and never having funding pulled for not meeting state accreditation standards. In contrast, each Choice Schools’ mission will vary, and they will lose their funding for not meeting accountability standards set forth in their charter.
Community Choice Schools
So, how do communities build these news schools?
To begin, interested citizens should find like-minded partners. Start by holding a town meeting or organizing a video conference, inviting neighbors, colleagues and friends. Discuss ideas, exchange information and agree to meet again. During the process of networking and developing a mission for the Choice School, identify board members. Leaders will be identified based on their consistent attendance and by participating in robust conversations about forming a school.
Once a board is recognized, continue with regular board meetings and create bylaws and articles of incorporation, so the board can hold its first officer elections. Next, apply for a 501c3, establishing the board as a non-profit organization. Open a bank account, develop a business plan and a detailed budget, and start raising money, so the board can hire a head of school to act as the CEO. With this dynamic person on the team, the board can now apply for a charter by following Section 9 of the law. Once the charter is approved, follow the business plan and open the school. This entire process may take two to four years, possibly more.
Special Needs Equal Opportunity Education Savings Account
Montana’s ESA establishes a trust account within the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to receive a portion of the per-pupil funding for participating students and to distribute to parents as reimbursement for approved, educational expenditures within the private market. Only students eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can participate. To enroll, parents must first sign a contract with the OPI to release the school of its obligation to educate the student and agree to use the funds solely for educational purposes. OPI will be responsible for approving and monitoring the individual expenditures of each family before reimbursing the parents. Section 4 of the law lists examples of appropriate uses: tuition, virtual programs, educational therapies, curriculum, software, transportation, etc. The main requirement is that goods and services must be directly related to meeting the educational goals of the student. Once approved, participants will have access to roughly $5,600 per student each school year though exact amounts will vary depending on the district of the student’s IEP. The law mandates Fall of 2024 as the first school year for the program to operate, giving the OPI and a marketplace of individual providers a year to organize.
Both new education freedom laws set pathways for public funds to follow students. Though revolutionary in Montana, public education funds following students has been working well in 45 other states and in D.C. for decades through school choice statutes such as charter schools, vouchers, inter and intra district open enrollment, and ESAs. With the focus on funding individual educational choices of students rather than on the geographical location of schools, Montana families will finally be the drivers of their children’s education.