Montana passes charter school law, makes landmark changes across school sectors

2023 was a landmark year for educational innovation in Montana. A flurry of bills were signed into law that impact the K-12 school choices of families across the state. Whether your family chooses public school, private school, online learning, or homeschooling, there are changes likely to affect you this school year or next!

Let’s take a look at what’s changing in each of Montana’s school sectors: 

Traditional public school choice: Ensuring transfers are free for families

Open enrollment changes:

A question many Montana families face is whether they can choose a public school other than the one they’re assigned to. A new bill standardizes open enrollment in public schools across the state, making it easier (and guaranteeing it’s free) for families to choose the best public school fit for their child. 

The law, which goes into effect for the 2024-2025 school year, ensures that families won’t be denied the ability to transfer by their home district. The law also requires that a receiving district approve the transfer of a student who applies, unless certain limited circumstances apply. For example, circumstances where a district may still deny a transfer include capacity limitations, or cases where the student was expelled or suspended from another district. 

Plus, the bill clarifies that there are a few situations in which it’s absolutely mandatory for a district to approve a transfer request. This is the case, for example, when the student is under the care of a state agency. It’s also the case if the student lives closer to the preferred school, more than 3 miles away from their school in their resident district, and their resident district does not provide transportation. 

Besides setting clearer rules for transfers and helping families know what to expect, the bill ensures that parents who choose a public school outside their attendance area will not have to pay tuition. This is a game-changer! Previously, some Montana districts would require families to pay tuition for their transfer student. Now, starting in 2024, the child’s home district will be responsible for fees. 

By standardizing transfer rules and ensuring public education is free for families in all cases, the new bill removes barriers for Montana families choosing public school. Note that in most cases, families who choose schools outside of their district must still provide their own transportation — this can be something to discuss with your preferred public school.

Additional changes for public school students:

Besides open enrollment, another change impacting public school students is that the cap on the Innovative Education Program expanded this year. This program, which is funded via tax-incentivized donations, promotes personalized learning opportunities, such as work-based learning, for public school students. (You can see a list of districts that recently received funding from this program on the official state website.)

In yet another significant bill, lawmakers increased the amount of Advanced Opportunities funding that districts can qualify for. This Advanced Opportunities program supports districts statewide in developing STEM and career and technical courses for students in grades 6-12. 

While these are the changes with the most direct impact for public school families, it’s also notable that Montana expanded incentives this year to raise starting public school teacher salaries. 

Montana has new, improved rules for public school transfers! Learn about what’s changing for public school choice, as well as Montana’s new charter school law and special education scholarship, at @SchoolChoiceWk.

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Public charters: New charter school options authorized in Montana

In another momentous change, in 2023, Montana became the 46th state in the country to pass charter school laws. Charter schools are free public schools that are open to all students. What makes them distinct from traditional public schools is they have extra autonomy to innovate and serve specific community needs. 

Legislators actually passed two different bills authorizing charter school arrangements. One bill, the Community Choice Schools Act, sets up a process where new charter schools can be approved by local charter boards and a state charter commission. (Note that, as of September 2023, aspects of the Community Choice Schools Act are temporarily blocked due to a lawsuit working its way through the court.) The other bill, the Public Charter Schools Act, allows for charter schools to be approved by local school boards, and is already in effect. 

How soon will charter schools under these new arrangements launch and be ready for students in Montana? We’ll have to wait and see. Families may be able to choose a new public charter or “community choice school” within a couple of years. For instance, West Virginia passed a charter school law in 2019. Three years later it had four charter schools, including two statewide online charter schools, open for learning.

Since Montana passed its charter school law, there are only four U.S. states remaining that have no public charter school law: Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Vermont. 

Private school choice: More scholarships, especially for special needs students

Have you chosen one of Montana’s more than 100 private schools? Thanks to recent bills, private school options are expanding in at least three major ways moving forward. 

First, the cap on Montana’s tax credit scholarship program has more than doubled, increasing from $2 million to $5 million. This means that student-scholarship organizations will be able to accept more donations from individuals and businesses. With additional donations, these organizations will be able to distribute a greater number of scholarships to low and middle-income students across the state. More families will be able to participate in the program and scholarship amounts may increase as well. You can learn more about who these scholarships serve and how to apply at ACE Scholarships.

Along with this expansion of Montana’s existing scholarship program, a brand new program is launching for special needs students. Launching in 2024, the Students with Special Needs Opportunity Act allows families of children with disabilities to apply for education savings accounts. Participating families will receive about $6,800 in an online account for their child. Families can use these funds for private school tuition, textbooks, curriculum, tutoring, education therapies, costs attached to classes or services offered by public schools, transportation, or other approved learning expenses. 

“Each child is unique and deserves access to the best education possible to meet his or her individual needs. This is especially true for the more than 18,000 students in Montana who require specialized education services.” – Governor Gianforte

Finally, a third change impacting private school families is that a new bill allows students to enroll part-time in public schools. This offers opportunities for students who attend private school to participate in courses at their local public school!

Online learning: Making it easier to access digital courses

Montana families’ main option for online learning is Montana Digital Academy. Established in 2009, Montana Digital Academy is not a stand-alone school, but partners with districts across the state to offer online courses that supplement local learning. Two new bills signed into law this year expand families’ access to online learning.

One bill expands the scope of Montana Digital Academy, clarifying that the program should provide opportunities for all students who participate in public school across the state, including part-time students. The bill makes additional changes to make it easier for Montana Digital Academy to grow. For example, previously, the academy’s instructors had to have licenses and endorsements in Montana. Now, instructors can be licensed and endorsed elsewhere. As another example, the bill widens the academy’s focus to include more than just core subjects and advanced course offerings. Now, Montana Digital Academy’s mission includes providing online courses “that empower pupils to become community, college, and career ready.” Additionally, this bill requires more detailed reporting from the academy, to better track student progress.

Meanwhile, the other bill clarifies the definition of remote instruction in Montana, and makes it easier for schools offering online classes to offer those classes to out-of-district students. The bill says, “A school of a district providing remote instruction shall provide remote instruction to an out-of-district pupil… unless, because of class size restrictions, the accreditation of the school would be adversely impacted.”

Homeschooling: Part-time enrollment opportunities available

Finally, Montana’s new bill allowing part-time enrollment impacts homeschoolers as well as private schoolers. The bill specifically states, “A child enrolled in a nonpublic or home school may enroll on a part-time basis in a public school.” So, homeschool students will now have an easier time signing up for specific courses at nearby public schools. This will guarantee access to public school options, and empower families to blend home and public learning options. 

Spread the word

All these changes aim to support Montana families in finding the best K-12 learning environment for their child. No two children in Montana are exactly alike, and what works well for one may not work well for another. Choosing a school for your child starts with knowing your options, including the ones launching soon in your state! If you’ve learned something new about your education options, pass on what you learned. That way, you can support another family in their school search.