Teachers Union President Resists Charter Schools
Opposes Reform Pushed by Obama and Republican State Senator
BY MIKE NOYES
Montana is listed as one of 10 states that currently does not allow for charter schools. Supporters of charter schools say they encourage competition and give parents more options. Opponents say they undermine the public school system and siphon off resources.
This summer, the U.S. Depart-ment of Education will begin accepting state applications for the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funds. That is the "largest one-time investment in K-12 public school reform," according to a news release by the department. While education department officials have stated charter school regulations will be a factor, details of the grant applications have not been released.
Montana Office of Public Instruction Communications Director Linda Kaiser said guidelines for the grants are expected later this summer. "It’s just something we’re watching," Kaiser said of the potential impact of the states’ current charter school rules in relation to funding. "We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet."
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, said the message from the education department reflects the personal views of Secretary Duncan based on experiences in Chicago that may not fit Montana. "I think there’s a manifest unfairness to it all," Feaver said of the attempt to link school funding to charter schools. "[Duncan] has a point of view, and I think he tends to push the agenda on charters from his frame of reference."
In a conference call with reporters earlier this month, Duncan said President Barack Obama has called on states to encourage the expansion of charter schools. "We just want investment [in] states that want to push a very strong reform agenda," Duncan said. "…Our top priority is to provide new high quality learning options for children and communities across the nation."
State Senator Rick Laible (R– Dist. 44) worked on a charter school bill aimed specifically to allow for charters in Native American communities, where he said dropout rates sometimes climb above 60 percent. (The bill was not introduced in session). "Obviously, there’s a problem," he said.
Laible said he supports a charter school option for the entire state, and wishes the federal government would stipulate that they would not provide funds for states that don’t allow charter schools. "That would force us to have charter schools," Laible said. "Here’s the question, not what is best for the establishment…Why don’t we put the kids to the forefront of this?"
Feaver said he doesn’t believe linking funding to charter schools will move the legislature to press for them. "I do not see Montana jumping into legislated charter schools just to get the money," he said.
Laible said he believes the education department’s move could make an impact. "We need the money," he said. "As a state we should be open to [charter schools]."
Feaver said that state law currently allows for existing school districts to establish charter schools as long as they meet established requirements. Laible said while that’s technically true, the hurdles and red tape in the provision effectively eliminate the opportunity to set up a charter school. Montana currently does not have one charter school. "We cannot continue to do the same thing and expect different results,"
Duncan said in the release. "We cannot let another generation of children be deprived of their civil right to a quality education." The head of the education department has put states on notice that they may jeopardize some future federal funding if they don’t allow for charter schools. "States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a news release earlier this month.
From the Bozeman-based Montana Policy Institute. See www.montanapolicy.org