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Judge dismisses lawsuit involving new Montana public charter schools

The court order resolves a dispute over the opening of new charter schools this fall and preserves an injunction against state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.
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Posted at 7:26 AM, May 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-15 11:52:08-04

A district court judge in Helena last week resolved a legal dispute between the Montana Quality Education Coalition and the state Office of Public Instruction, ending litigation over the agency’s implementation of a new public charter school law.

The dismissal of the case, ordered May 10 by Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael McMahon, preserves the court’s earlier injunction barring OPI from applying certain school-opening requirements to 19 public charters approved this year by the state Board of Public Education, reports the Montana Free Press. MQEC had argued that the requirements, which include supplemental approvals by state and local officials, would delay the planned fall openings of new charter schools by public school districts across the state.

The coalition also alleged that the requirements infringed on the authority of the state education board to approve public charter schools under the new law — House Bill 549 — passed with support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the 2023 session.

In dismissing the case, McMahon stipulated that the injunction remain in place until a future court terminates it or until the Montana Legislature reconciles the underlying disagreement over approval authority during the 2025 session. Per McMahon’s order, all other claims are dismissed and the parties will bear responsibility for their own legal fees.

Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, who was listed as a defendant alongside the agency she leads, issued a press release Monday lauding the court’s dismissal of the case. She further noted that OPI has already completed its role in the opening process for 15 of the 18 public charter schools slated to begin operating in Montana this year. In a statement accompanying the release, Arntzen continued to criticize the Montana Quality Education Coalition for taking its concerns to court.

“Unaccountable bureaucratic organizations caused delays for our students, parents, and schools,” Arntzen wrote. “Since this delay, my staff has worked to prioritize the school opening process for our public charter schools. I look forward to the legislature clarifying this process for added parental choice and freedom in education.”

MQEC Executive Director Doug Reisig told Montana Free Press by phone Tuesday that the coalition, which represents five statewide education associations and more than 100 public school districts, is “pleased” with McMahon’s order. Reisig said that the ruling offers a stable solution to coalition members’ concerns about the timely opening of new public charter schools. That solution will last until either the injunction is terminated by a separate court order or the Montana Legislature “cleans up the language.”

“We’re just happy that the 19 public charter schools that were approved are able to open when they need to open,” Reisig said. “We know that more public charter school applications are coming to the Board of Public Ed in July, and it looks like they won’t be held up by OPI.”

Per HB 549, the Montana Board of Public Education will begin soliciting the next round of charter school applications from public school districts on June 1.

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