State: Montana

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. 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. 

Montana does already have one charter school: Bozeman Charter School. This school offers remote learning and practical field trips for students in grades 3-8. While charters weren’t impossible to establish before Montana’s charter laws passed, the laws make it easier and offer more flexibility.

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.

Montana State Guide

Choosing a school? You’ve got options.

Moms and dads of Montana, choosing where your child goes to school is one of the biggest decisions you face. Whether you’re deciding about kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, or high school, it can feel confusing to sort through your options. Making the best decision for your child’s education starts with knowing all your options. In Montana, families can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, online learning, homeschooling, and microschooling and mix-and-match learning.

Stay informed on the latest school choice updates in Montana with our deep dive blog!

Montana Traditional Public Schools

Most children (89.2% of all K-12 students) in Montana attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers like you. Did you know that Montana spends an average of $13,299 per public school student each year? You can search your school’s spending and that of nearby schools at Project Nickel.

In general in Montana, the state allows each district to set its own open enrollment policies; the state only requires districts to offer open enrollment if parents live too far from their child’s assigned school. Open enrollment refers to whether parents can choose to send their children to any public school, regardless of where it is located.

For an example of what the open enrollment process currently looks like, check out Missoula County Public Schools’ guidelines for attending a high school other than the one you are zoned for. In Montana, when an agreement between school districts is made allowing a student to participate in open enrollment, it includes transportation provisions. 

A bill passed in 2023 will make important changes to public school transfer options starting next school year. The new law 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. 

Montana parents should check with their local school district if they wish to participate in open enrollment. This is a valuable form of public school choice, widening parents options and ensuring that their zip code isn’t the sole determiner of their education. Find out more about public schools in your state at the Montana Office of Public Instruction. 

Montana Charter Schools

In 2023, Montana became the 46th state in the country to pass charter school laws. So far, Montana has just one charter school, the Bozeman Charter School, which currently offers remote learning and in-person field trips for students in grades 3-8.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are public, free, and typically have no requirements for entry. What distinguishes charter schools is that they are allowed extra freedom to innovate with curriculum and learning methods and held accountable to authorizing bodies for results. 

Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a language immersion program or offering a rigorous, literacy-based curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system (like drawing random names out of a hat!) is usually used to determine admittance. 

Montana Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are permitted in Montana, though there may not be any active magnet schools at present. These free public schools allow kids to focus on one specific theme, like STEM or the performing arts. The idea is that, if your child is passionate about a subject, they may learn best in an environment full of students who share that passion and classes that teach through the lenses of that main theme. 

Montana Private Schools

You can also choose private school for your child! Montana families can choose from an array of private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. Private schools may offer a unique curriculum, smaller class sizes, or a faith-based tradition. Montana’s private schools come in all shapes and forms, from religious schools to schools designed for children with special needs. 

There are more than 120 private schools across the state of Montana. The average tuition for private schools in the state is $8,068 for elementary schools and $9,063 for high schools. Keep in mind that tuition costs can vary widely.

Montana’s first school choice program, a scholarship program funded by tax-credited donations, was launched in 2015. After the program’s legality was challenged by the Montana Supreme Court, the program was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case, which ruled it constitutional in 2020. All students between the ages of five and 18 in Montana are eligible to apply for this program, which expanded in 2023. The average scholarship size received is about $2,200. In Montana, 0.6% of all K-12 students are participating in this program.

Starting in 2024, students with special needs will be eligible for a new education savings account scholarship. Participating families will receive about $6,800 in an online account for their child. These funds can be flexibly used for private school tuition, textbooks, curriculum, tutoring, education therapies, transportation or other approved learning expenses. Learn more in our full explainer!

Learn more at ACE Montana and Private School Review: Montana.

 

Montana Online Learning

Whether your child wants to accelerate his or her learning or needs a quieter environment in which to focus, you may be interested in giving virtual school a try. 

While Montana does not currently have a free, full-time online learning option, Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) allows middle and high school students to take online classes on a part-time basis through their local school. In 2023, two bills passed expanding Montana Digital Academy’s mission and making it easier for schools offering online classes to offer those classes to out-of-district students. More than 4,000 Montana students took at least one online course through MTDA in 2020-2021.

Also, families in any state can choose from paid online learning providers for a full-time option. Paid online schools include George Washington University Online High SchoolThe Keystone School, Excel High School, and K12 Private Academy.

In a few areas, families can also choose a district-run online school. For example, the Bozeman School District has a hybrid school for district students, and recently announced it will enroll out of district students for 2023-2024. Another district option (this one for grades 9-12) is Missoula Online Academy.

To read more about online learning in Montana, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.

Montana Homeschooling

Homeschooling is another important school option for Montana families. This choice allows for high levels of customized learning and flexibility. Homeschooling is the process of parents educating students at home and all 50 states allow it. 

In Montana, 4.7% of all K-12 students are homeschooled. The state of Montana requires notice of your intent to homeschool annually by the start of the year. It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your public school so your student is not marked truant. In the case that you decide to return to public school, contact your local school to find out their placement guidelines.

If you choose homeschooling, then you are required to teach the basic subjects taught in public schools,  but you are not required to use specific standardized tests. Homeschooled students in Montana may be eligible to participate in sports, activities, or classes at local public schools. In fact, a bill passed in 2023 clarified that homeschool students can enroll part-time in public schools, making it easier for families to blend home and public options.

Find more resources about homeschooling specific to Montana at the Home School Legal Defense Association and the Yellowstone Coalition of Home Educators.

Montana Microschools and Mix-and-Match Learning

Today, many Montana families are blending school options to come up with new ways to personalize education. Microschools are one of these ways. A microschool refers to students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Microschools can take a variety of shapes and legal forms, from homeschoolers coming together at an enrichment center to a private school committed to small classrooms. What microschools share in common is a commitment to small-group learning and close-knit relationships, along with an emphasis on children as individual learners. 

Here are a few real examples of microschools and related resources in Montana: 

 

  • Great Beginnings is a nature-based Montessori school and summer camp in Bozeman. 

 

 

  • Opt Out is an intentionally small, “outside the box” learning program for Bozeman students in grades K-6. Opt Out combines project-based learning, outdoor education, Montessori, and Waldorf methods. 

 

 

Remember, microschooling is more a mentality than a specific legal distinction in most cases. Often, a family participates in a microschool while legally homeschooling, or being enrolled in a private or online school. 

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School Type
Traditional public schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public charter schools do not charge tuition. They are usually managed by nonprofit organizations and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public magnet schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and focus on themes, such as math, science, technology, and the arts.
Private schools charge tuition, but scholarships are often available via state programs or by individual schools. Private schools are privately managed and can be faith-based or secular.
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Microschooling and Mix-and-Match Learning

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