Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) House Bill 562 is unconstitutionally “outsourcing public education” and diverting public school tax dollars to private schools — and it should be stopped.

That’s according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a coalition of parents, teachers, property taxpayers and voters.

In the court filing and request for temporary injunction, the plaintiffs are asking a Lewis and Clark County District Court to stop the “community choice school bill” from taking effect on July 1, alleging it poses “immediate, irreparable harm” to educators and means “degradation” of the state’s guarantee of public education.

HB 562 is one of two “charter school” bills passed by the Montana Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. It sets up a framework for those schools outside of the traditional public education system — a design plaintiffs allege breaks with the Montana Constitution in at least six different ways.

For example, the bill creates local “governing boards,” but only private school parents and employees can vote on members; it appropriates tax dollars to privates schools, which are exempt from laws governing public schools; and it exempts those schools from Indian Education for All, a policy enacting Montana’s constitutional commitment to recognize the “unique cultural heritage of the American Indians,” according to the lawsuit.

“HB 562 designs a separate and unequal system of state-subsidized private schools in direct conflict with the system of equal, free, and quality public education that the Montana Constitution guarantees,” the lawsuit said. It also said the bill supports the creation of virtual schools that can pull students away from the most rural school districts.

Opponents of HB 562 promised to take the bill to court once it became law. In recent years, such legislation has become a proxy war between parents who support “school choice” and opponents of spending public money on private education.

The lawsuit notes the bill came out of a national privatization movement, and the plaintiffs allege its ideas have no place in Montana.

“Montana is not the venue for school privatization activists to experiment with ideas that endanger access to the high-quality community-centered education that the Montana Constitution guarantees,” the complaint said.

The lawsuit names as defendants the state of Montana, and Republicans Gov. Gianforte and Superintendent of Public Education Elsie Arntzen. Arntzen is named in part because the bill requires her as superintendent to reduce public school funding and redirect it to private schools, the lawsuit said.

In an email, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Gianforte continues to support parents who want more choices for their children.

“While the governor generally doesn’t comment on active litigation, he is committed to empowering Montana parents to choose the education that best meets the individual needs of their child,” said spokesperson Kaitlin Price.

A spokesperson for the Office of Public Instruction said it had only received the complaint Wednesday afternoon and was still reviewing it.

The plaintiffs are teachers and parents, along with the Montana Quality Education Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Montana.

A news release announcing the lawsuit describes the MQEC as the largest education advocacy organization in the state with a mission to advocate for adequate public school funding and a commitment to defend educational constitutional guarantees.

“HB 562 directly compromises MQEC’s mission of protecting and strengthening Montana’s commitment to public education by threatening the funding, stability, and public regard of the public educational system,” said the lawsuit.

The League of Women Voters are participating in the case in part because they were involved in the adoption of the 1972 Montana Constitution, which protects public education, the complaint said. Plus, the league has a mission to “protect voting rights and fight against disenfranchisement.”

“HB 562 directly compromises those efforts by narrowing the category of voters eligible to vote in governing board elections,” said the lawsuit, referring to the way private school board members are chosen; only private school parents and employees can vote on them, the lawsuit said.

Cited in the lawsuit, the Montana Constitution says: “It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state.”

The complaint said the individual plaintiffs also are harmed by HB 562.

Public school teachers will see less funding and and a lack of protections for teachers, the lawsuit said. It said parents will suffer from unequal educational opportunity, a loss of funding associated with private virtual schools that may pull students and funds away from local public schools, and discrimination against children with disabilities.

“All individual public school plaintiffs will suffer the deprivation of their right to vote in governing board elections or to otherwise engage in the privatized schools’ mechanisms for asserting state and local supervision and control,” the lawsuit said.

It said HB562 also “authorizes the creation of unaccountable institutions.”

For example, it allows for privatized schools, governing boards, and a statewide commission, which the lawsuit said all operate “without regard for state standards for accreditation, teacher qualifications, curriculum, and student protections.”

The bill also exempts them from supervision by the Montana Board of Public Education, “even purporting to create a commission parallel to the Board of Public Education — precisely the type of agency that the framers (of the constitution) intended to prohibit,” the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs are represented by Upper Seven Law.