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Teachers’ Fret

Is Montana ready for a charter school system?


Leaders of the charter school movement in Montana say the state is ripe for educational alternatives, but others contend the current public school structure is flexible enough to serve all types of students just fine.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have now passed legislation that authorizes charter schools to operate within their boundaries. While such legislation varies, a primary component is that the schools are self-governing and largely unfettered by rules, in exchange for a time-limited charter, or contract, that is usually tied to student achievement.

In most models, public per-pupil funding is passed onto the schools, and separate tuition is not usually charged.

But lawmakers in Montana have been reluctant to endorse the movement, and bills allowing their creation here have failed in the past three sessions of the Montana Legislature.

Proponents say charter schools allow parents and educators to break out of the restrictive confines of traditional public education and create learning centers that are more tailored to student needs. But skeptics, even if they support the concept, say the proposals that have been advanced so far in Montana have largely been a ruse to skirt state laws, weaken teacher unions, or illegally insert religion into the public sector.

Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says the issue of charter schools can be confusing because many people have a different understanding of what the schools are and how they work. Sen. Tom Keating, a conservative Billings Republican who is running for lieutenant governor with Missoula gubernatorial maverick Rob Natelson, was the primary sponsor of charter school bills in the past two legislative sessions. Keating says creating the new schools would trigger competition with the public system, and that, in turn, has improved overall academic achievement in other states.

Charter schools are also more accountable and cheaper to run than public systems, he contends, “and that really burns the unions.”

But Keating’s bills, which were strongly supported by the Montana Christian Coalition and the equally conservative Eagle Forum, ran into heated opposition. Opponents attacked the measures as being secular end-runs around Montana law. Feaver, among others, contends that a framework already exists in Montana to operate charter-type schools. Keating and his supporters, he says, are using the charter-school prototype as political cover for their real goals—the “privatization” of public education.

But it wasn’t just the unions who came out against Keating’s bills. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan, a progressive Democrat running for the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, says she didn’t like the proposals, either.

“One has to be careful to look beyond the title of a bill because, as they say, the devil’s in the details,” she explains. “The concept of charter schools I have supported. But [Keating’s measure] becomes a voucher system, where public dollars are being used for private schooling. That I cannot support.”

“The only thing charter schools have to follow are truancy laws, health and safety laws, tax laws and local ordinances,” Keating explains. He included a nonsectarian clause to ensure that religious organizations weren’t seen as running the show. But, he says, opponents smeared his proposals by spreading inaccurate information.

“It was not a voucher system,” he says sternly. “Those are the kind of snide remarks or propaganda that are used to negate charter schools.”

One charter school proponent who believes the current system is unworkable, though for different reasons, is Ben Irvin, who until last spring served as the Indian Education Coordinator for the Ronan School District.

Irvin, who is still fighting his April 1999 firing by the Ronan-Pablo School Board, contends that parents in districts with multiracial populations would be better off starting their own charter schools than trying to deal with entrenched public school bureaucracies.

Bob Anderson, one of three Republican candidates seeking Keenan’s post at the Office of Public Instruction, says he also supports public-based charter schools. But to succeed in Montana, he contends, they must nonsecular, have tight local oversight, and be governed through public votes.

“I don’t see it as the be-all, end-all for all districts in Montana,” says Anderson, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association. “I think we have some very good traditional schools in Montana, but this is just another thing in the arsenal.”

Anderson says his association is working with other education groups to draft a new charter school bill for the next Legislature.

But Feaver, among others, warns that any new legislation must pass at least four basic criteria if proponents want unions to support it. Expect another fight, he says, if the proposed schools aren’t controlled by local district trustees, don’t require teachers to be certified and endorsed, don’t have open access for students, or don’t allow collective bargaining.

“I think charter schools are a good concept, but they’ve got to play by the same rules,” adds Rep. Linda McCulloch, a Missoula Democrat and Bonner School librarian who is also seeking Keenan’s job. “You can’t cut corners on safety or health issues, and there needs to be local school district accountability.” But the primary issue surrounding nearly all of the talk about education alternatives, says Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Vagner, is money.

“The Montana public schools are very, very good schools, but the Legislature has not adequately funded the public schools,” she says. “For us in Montana, that is the greatest challenge. I don’t see the need for charter schools if they’re viewed as giving greater flexibility to the public school program. I think we have that flexibility.”

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