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Could Montana OK Charters and Private-School Tax Credits All at Once?

UPDATED

Separate bills to allow charter schools and to provide a tax-credit for parents who send their children to private schools have made progress recently in the Montana legislature, but the state's K-12 boss is fighting these proposals and believes that the top public official in the state could be a helpful backstop.

As The Missoulian reported on April 3, the state Senate approved a bill allowing charter schools, while the House approved a school choice plan that would provide tax credits to families that send their children to private schools, as well as individuals contributing to private-school scholarship-granting organizations.

First with respect to the amended charter school bill, which passed the Senate 34-16, there are some key wrinkles that will probably displease charter advocates, even though they may applaud Montana moving off the list of eight states that don't allow charters.

One thing you'll notice is that it would eliminate a statewide charter-authorizing commission that was prominently included in the original bill. Instead, the Senate-approved version specifies that school districts are the governing bodies that can authorize charters. Spiking a statewide commission will count as a major no-no among groups like the Center for Education Reform, which have long advocated for such commissions as important avenues for charter approval and a key part of state charter laws. The bill also says that charter schools have to negotiate salaries, benefits, and working conditions with "affected labor groups," which may make it difficult for charters to depart significantly from established practices in particular districts. Districts can apply for "variances" for their charter schools on various matters, except for teacher licensure, another restriction on the flexibility that friends of charters look on sourly.

The original bill's sponsor, Sen. Dave Lewis, a Republican, rejected the amended version, according to the newspaper, which should tell you a great deal. GOP Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich was blunt about the amended bill: "This (amendment) does nothing to advance charter schools. With this amendment, it will be extremely difficult to get a charter school off the ground in Montana."

As for the tax-credit legislation, House Bill 213 passed the lower chamber by a 56-43 margin. The $550 tax credit per student per year can't exceed the individual's total state income-tax liability.

But there's separate tax-credit legislation in the upper chamber, Senate Bill 81, which has passed the senate as well as the House Tax Committee, and would create scholarship-granting organizations against which people could claim tax credits (up to 40 percent of donations for individuals, and 20 percent for corporations). Just as an exercise, if you'd like, you can compare the Senate bill to model legislation on the creation of such scholarship-granting organizations and tax credits from the American Legislative Exchange Council and see where the Montana bill is similar and dissimilar from the conservative Washington think tank's proposal for state lawmakers. UPDATE: The House passed this bill by a 53-47 margin, The Montana Standard reported April 7.

But what about Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a Democrat? She opposes both charters and tax-credits, and in a brief Twitter exchange I had with her April 5, she indicated that she believes that at least as far as tax credits are concerned, if such a proposal gets as far as Gov. Steve Bullock, a fellow Democrat, he could still veto it. Interestingly enough, one senator who defended the amended charter-school bill, GOP Sen. Alan Olson, said that without the changes criticized by Wittich, Bullock likely wouldn't sign it.

An article posted on the campaign website from Bullock's 2012 campaign indicates that Bullock considers himself a friend of teachers' unions who criticized his GOP opponent, Rick Hill, for supporting charters and tax credits. So it's unclear that any legislative contortions will satisfy the governor when it comes to either proposal.

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