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Court hands school choice a setback as locals tout benefits

by MATT BALDWIN
Daily Inter Lake | September 13, 2023 2:00 AM

Two Flathead Valley women recently appointed to a new state commission that will authorize and oversee charter schools in Montana are optimistic that the “choice school” model will ultimately prove to be a valuable addition to the state’s public education system, even as the concept faces some initial legal hurdles and fierce criticism.

Gov. Greg Gianforte last month named Whitefish resident Cathy Kincheloe to the Community Choice School Commission, while former Republican state legislator and retired teacher Dee Brown was appointed by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton.

Both women see the option of charter schools as a potential benefit to students who might not fit into the traditional public school setting or those who would thrive with a more defined curriculum.

“I’ve always been a choice school supporter,” said Brown, a Hungry Horse resident who taught in the Columbia Falls School District for 26 years and served in the Legislature from 2001-2019. “I think there is a small population that cannot be reached in a regular public school. [Each student’s] individual differences need to be addressed.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and cannot charge tuition or be religiously affiliated. They could range from a bilingual school to a trades or arts-focused program or a school that emphasizes science and technology. There are more than 7,000 charter schools nationwide, according to the National Charter School Resource Center.

Gianforte signed House Bill 562 into law earlier this year, allowing for the establishment of “community choice schools” that are to be governed by a state-appointed commission and overseen by a local board elected by staff and parents of the school. Under the bill, the schools would be exempt from many of the regulatory requirements the state currently uses in public schools.

A pending lawsuit is challenging the bill’s constitutionality, with public school associations and some teachers and parents questioning the law’s use of public funds for charter schools, as well as the lack of accountability and representation with the choice school model.

Last week Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Chris Abbott issued a setback for the choice school commission with a preliminary injunction that partially stops implementation of the law.

In Abbott’s opinion he wrote that the plaintiffs were likely to prove the state may not take oversight authority of choice schools “from the bodies constitutionally charged with supervising the public school system — the Board of Public Education and locally elected school boards — and give it instead to a body of the Legislature’s own creation.”

“Likewise, if elections are to be held for the bodies governing choice schools, plaintiffs have shown that the Constitution likely requires that those elections be shared with all the qualified electors, not the narrow subset given the franchise by HB 562.”

While the preliminary injunction is in effect, the commission is allowed to meet but it cannot approve or deny applications for choice schools.

ASSUMING THE law can pass legal muster, Kincheloe said the commission’s top job will be to ensure all proposed charter schools are up to standards and a good fit for the community.

She’s seen first-hand what is required for a charter school to thrive.

Kincheloe is currently employed as a Realtor, but previously spent 20 years in the public charter school realm. She started as a teacher and grew into a curriculum director role at a Duluth, Minnesota charter school.

“It was an amazing experience,” Kincheloe said. “They invested in us teachers and I fell in love with it. We had a great successful model.”

From there, she moved into a charter management position and helped start other charter schools using the same model. In all, she’s contributed to opening nine new charter schools.

Given her experience, she jumped at the opportunity to apply for Montana’s choice school commission following its creation.

Kincheloe said that while she supports traditional public schools and teachers — her two step children attend Whitefish High School — adding an element of competition would help elevate the quality of all Montana schools.

“Educators will tell you we can do things better,” said Kincheloe. “It not only offers a better choice for families, but it also puts a bit of competition into the mix — the [public] funding follows the child.”

Brown said she could look to her own children as examples of who might benefit from a charter school. Her daughter, she said, was content to learn in a typical classroom setting, taking notes and written tests. Her son, on the other hand, would have benefited from a more participatory environment.

“It would have been neat for him to go to a [choice] school with hands-on learning,” she said, such as one with an engineering focus.

Likewise, Kincheloe could see a trades-centered charter school thrive in the Flathead Valley.

“Our construction industry is booming,” she said. “That could be a great opportunity for kids right out of high school.”

BOTH BROWN and Kincheloe estimate it could be years before a charter school takes shape in Montana, given the planning and recruitment involved in starting a school from scratch.

“Everyone interested [in choice schools] would like it to happen tomorrow,” Brown said. “But it’s going to take months in preparation, months in planning and months in deciding what fills the niche the public school does not fill.”

“We have a lot of opportunities in the Flathead,” Brown continued. “There’s a group anxious to roll up their sleeves and start working on this.”

In Kincheloe’s experience, charter schools become less controversial after the public gets to see how they can complement a traditional public school system. Pointing back to her career in Minnesota, she noted that in 1991 the state became the first to allow charter schools, a move that was considered controversial at the time.

“Now, they’re commonplace,” she said. “They’re embraced as part of the public education model.”

“There are so many misconceptions about charter schools, and I hope people take the opportunity to learn more about what they offer,” she said.

GIANFORTE ALSO has also appointed Trish Schreiber, of Helmville, to chair the commission. According to the Governor’s Office, Schreiber has served as an educational therapist for over two decades for students who experience learning challenges. She also serves as senior education fellow at the Frontier Institute.

In addition to the governor’s appointees, the commission is comprised of one member appointed by each the superintendent of public instruction, the president of the Montana Senate, the speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, the minority leader of the Montana Senate, and the minority leader of the Montana House of Representatives.

According to the Montana Free Press, Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, appointed to the commission Bozeman math teacher Emily Hessler, while House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, appointed Helena Montessori teacher Kathryn Wright.