- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - House Republicans on an education panel passed a bill funding charter schools Wednesday night.

Speaker of the House Rep. Austin Knudsen said charter schools offer a free and inclusive option for students who want or need a more rigorous public education. After hearing testimony, members of Montana’s House Education Committee voted 9-6 along party lines to put House Bill 596 on the floor of the House.

The Culbertson Republican said some Montanans desire primary, elementary and secondary schooling outside the jurisdiction of the state Board of Public Education, which adopted the federal Common Core standards in 2013.

“I won’t deny that one of the main thrusts of this is to remove significant oversight from the Board of Public Education,” Knudsen said. “I think, in exchange of that, what you’re getting is a system that can function both more efficiently and with a lot more accountability than traditional public schools.”

Charter schools have been established in 43 other states. They are privately managed and typically hold students accountable through goals outlined in a contract with the state.

Opponents on Wednesday said charter schools would divert public dollars to educational institutions over which the state would have little control.

Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent of public instruction, said HB 596 would allow public charter schools to adopt preferences for admittance, including siblings of previous students and children of board members. “Charter schools do not ensure equal access,” Parman said.

Opponents also said charter schools have been shown to attract fraudulent activities since they were first established in 1991. Earlier this month, the founder of a charter school in Michigan went to trial on fraud and tax charges.

Dan Nicklay, principal at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy in Idaho, said fraud is the exception to what he has seen to be a successful school system.

“But they’re high profile of course,” Nicklay said of charter school fraud cases. “There are a lot of people out there who want them to fail and want there to be scandal.”

Jim Molloy, senior policy adviser to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, said that, on the whole there, there is no persuasive evidence that charter schools perform better than public schools.

“These are experimental schools,” Knudsen said. “It hasn’t been done in the state of Montana before, and if they don’t live up to our expectations, we can close them down.”

The Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning estimates that funding charter schools would cost about $1 million annually.

Knudsen’s proposal is a revised version of his 2013 charter school plan and another proposed in 2011. Republican Rep. Debra Lamm of Livingston said she wrote those three proposals while working at the Montana Family Foundation, finishing the latest bill before she was elected this year.

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