Students in 45 states are free to choose an innovative education option that is off-limits for kids in Montana: public charter schools. In fact, Montana is one of only five states in the country without a law specifically authorizing the establishment of charter schools. This policy failure is a deep disservice to our kids that flies in the face of our state’s constitutional commitment to provide a system of education that will develop the full educational potential of every child.
Why Doesn’t Montana Have Charter Schools?
"Our kids deserve to have the same innovative education options available to their peers in 45 other states."
Charter schools are tuition-free, independently operated public schools intended to allow more flexibility to build a learning environment and curriculum that fits the unique needs of students in their community.
In charter-school states, parents and community members who see a need in their community for innovative education options can band together to form their own public charter school. They can establish an independent school board and create a governing charter that outlines the purpose, responsibilities, governance, and accountable performance standards for the school.
As publicly funded schools, charter schools must be free and open to all students. Charter schools are not allowed to cherry-pick student enrollment, although they are allowed to specialize in catering to particular education needs and some laws outline enrollment preferences for disadvantaged students, siblings of students enrolled etc. For example, numerous charter schools like the Arizona Autism Charter School focus specifically on the learning needs of students with Autism.
Nationwide, charter school enrollment has tripled since 2005. What has made charter schools such an attractive education option for parents is the ability to be innovative. Unlike traditional public schools which are notoriously slow to adjust to the specific needs of students, charter schools’ independent nature can better accommodate the changing needs of their students and test innovative learning methods.
Portions of Montana’s administrative rules already allow for charter schools, at least in theory. So why aren’t charter schools flourishing? Unfortunately, the current rules are designed to shield school unions from accountability and maintain the education status quo.
First, states with successful charter school legislation ensure that public school unions cannot veto the will of parents. Montana forces charter school applicants to first apply to a review board made up of members jointly selected by prominent school unions, all with an incentive to oppose alternatives, maintain the status quo, and avoid facing accountability for their performance. The Board of Public Education ultimately makes the final approval.
Second, charter school states empower entrepreneurial educators, parents and community members with autonomy to establish a board to govern the charter school. In Montana, charter schools can only be created and governed by an existing school board. This effectively prevents charter schools because, compared to parents, existing school boards have little incentive to challenge the status quo with alternatives which might bring into question their own standards and practices.
Lastly, successful charter school states allow innovation by authorizing broad variances from traditional public school regulations to accommodate innovative curriculum designs, educator certification etc to better meet the specific needs of students in a community. Montana, however, imposes strict limits on variances.
Two proposals from the 2023 Legislature aim to correct these problems and finally authorize charter schools. As readers evaluate these dueling legislative proposals, I urge them to consider which one seriously addresses the current policy failures I outlined above, and which one continues to entrench the status quo.
Our kids deserve to have the same innovative education options available to their peers in 45 other states. If lawmakers keep kicking the can down the road on charter schools our kids are going to get left behind.
This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers