Public Charter Schools in Montana Set to Open, Legislature May Consider Tweaks

18 schools are slated to open this year.

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The Montana Legislature may consider “minor” changes to statutes related to public charter schools during its 2025 session following a recent court order, said a legislator and chairperson of an education committee.

But 18 schools are slated to open this year, according to the Office of Public Instruction.

Rep. Dave Bedey, R-Hamilton, said Thursday he believes the bill that opened the door for more charters is clear as written.

“At the end of the day, I’m just gratified that schools across the state are going to be able to put these innovative programs into place without delay,” Bedey said.

In the 2023 session, the legislature approved House Bill 549, which eased the way for more charter schools through the public school system. However, a lawsuit filed this spring alleged the Office of Public Instruction was throwing up roadblocks.

Last month, a Lewis and Clark District Court judge disagreed with the Office of Public Instruction’s interpretation that certain prerequisites needed to be met to get the charter schools off the ground, such as a parental petition and approval from county commissioners.

The legal dispute took place as students made plans to attend the new schools, but educators alleged the argument over how to open them meant likely delays.

Last week, the court signed off on an agreement between the plaintiffs, the Montana Quality Education Coalition, and defendants, Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and the Office of Public Instruction, that resolves some of the fight.

In the stipulation, the Montana Quality Education Coalition agreed Arntzen and the OPI had implemented processes that allow the schools to start operating by July 1, 2024, and that they were in compliance with the court’s order for a preliminary injunction last month.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition describes itself as made up of more than 100 school districts and five education organizations and one of the largest education advocacy organizations in Montana.

The agreement the judge approved acknowledges the preliminary injunction from April 17 remains in effect unless the court terminates it or the legislature amends relevant statutes. It also dismisses outstanding claims.

In an email this week, the Office of Public Instruction notes that as of May 13, it had opened 15 of 18 schools enrolling students this year.

“The OPI is working with one school to correct some of the information that was submitted and is waiting on applications from two schools,” the agency said in an email. “One of the approved public charter schools will not open until the fall of 2025.”

Rep. Bedey, chairperson of the interim budget committee on education, said Thursday he doesn’t believe amendments are needed, although small changes are possible.

Rather, he said a plain reading of HB 549 clearly indicates the approval process for schools, the authority of the Board of Public Education, and the duty of the Office of Public Instruction.

All the same, Bedey said the legislature has an opportunity to make “some minor changes” to make the intentions of the bill “crystal clear and remove any ambiguity” given some people had a “contrary reading” of it.

At a committee meeting in March, legislators voted 6-2 to send a letter to Arntzen telling her she was failing students and not meeting her Constitutional duties related to HB 549 and other educational programs legislators had supported.

The Montana Quality Education Coalition filed the lawsuit later the same month.

“It’s regrettable that this issue had to go to the courts for resolution because the meaning of the law was clear,” Bedey said. “It’s regrettable that we were unable to convince the superintendent of that when her lawyer appeared before us in a committee meeting in March.”

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: info@dailymontanan.com. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.

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