HELENA – A mother from Laurel did something unexpected when testifying at a hearing – she held her cell phone to the lectern’s microphone and played a message from her school district.
A pre-recorded voice said schools that have not made adequate academic progress for two years must offer free supplemental educational services. She knew that applied to her children’s school, but then she heard the catch.
“Only students that earn free and reduced lunch are eligible to apply for those services,” rang the voice through the room’s speakers.
Lisa Russell stopped the voicemail and told the House Education Committee that her children do not qualify for free and reduced lunch, which leaves her wondering about her options.
She and others from the Montana Family Foundation and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools spoke in favor of House Bill 315 last week. The bill would establish charter schools, one of several “school choice” proposals before the Legislature.
Other measures include House Bill 213, which would offer a $550 tax credit for families whose children attend private school, and Senate Bill 81, which would provide $5 million in tax credits for individuals and businesses that donate to scholarship organizations that support private school students or provide grants for new programs in public schools.
The push to give parents greater ability in choosing where to send their children to school is not new to Montana, but its base of support continues to grow. Meanwhile, school choice bills face critics from the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana School Boards Association and the state’s teachers union.
This year, the proposals received a major endorsement from U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who visited Helena last week during National School Choice Week.
He told a crowd gathered on the Capitol steps that different children thrive in different environments. Parents, he said, should determine whether their children will perform best in public, private or charter schools.
“We must do everything we can to ensure that our kids are prepared for the future,” he said. “And part of that is recognizing that we can’t take a one-size-fits-all with education.”
Although supporters argue that tax breaks would help parents with low incomes who want to send their children to private schools, opponents doubt those families would actually benefit.
“In the mechanics of this bill, you have to be able to pay tuition to begin with,” said Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent of public instruction. “If you can’t pay that tuition, then you can’t get a tax credit.”
Parman says families seeking alternatives can find them within Montana’s current public school system, which offers 57 alternative education programs. The latest opened last fall at Big Sky High School in Missoula, where students in the new Health Sciences Academy prepare for careers in medicine.
Parman sees opportunity to expand those alternatives, but he said some people would rather look outside the current system because they face trustees who do not support their ideas and they see other states establishing separate bodies to govern charter schools.
House Bill 315 would establish a nine-person charter school commission under the Department of Administration – not the Office of Public Instruction – to oversee the new schools.
Charter schools, which exist in 42 states, receive public funding and do not charge tuition. They have more flexibility than traditional public schools in how they operate and often center curriculum on a specific theme.
Lisa Grover, representing the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the schools must enter into legally binding performance contracts, which provide accountability.
“If a charter school does not adhere to its performance expectations, it can be closed down,” she said.
A bill to establish charter schools during the previous legislative session passed the House but failed in a Senate committee. School choice proponents hope to push the bills further this time, but they also recognize partisan differences.
At a hearing last week, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock opposed the measure to provide tax credits to families whose children attend private school. His aide also said he does not support attempts to defund public education.
At another hearing, a governor’s aide opposed the charter school bill. He urged the committee to work on enhancing innovations within the current public school system.
Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena and the sponsor of SB 81, said lawmakers could send school choice measures to the ballot in the form of referenda if they cannot gain the governor’s support.
Lewis first proposed a bill two years ago identical to his current measure, which offers tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to scholarship organizations or groups that provide grants for new public school programs.
Even if the legislation does not pass this time around, he said he’s certain school choice bills will return during the next session.
“Two years ago when I first brought this up, it was like, ‘Holy smokes, you madman, what are you even thinking about?’” he said. “And now it’s more like, “You’re kind of crazy, but there are pros and cons.’”
He wonders if two years down the road, people will finally say, “Hmmm. Maybe we should try this.”