Reject Charter Schools and the Knudsen-Laszloffy Agenda to Destroy Montana’s Public Schools

Charter School Science Class, 2016

On Wednesday, the House Education Committee will hear Speaker Austin Knudsen’s HB 596, another ill-conceived plan to damage Montana’s public schools and replace at least some of them with charter schools. While Knudsen likes to bloviate about the “competition” that charter schools will provide, the reality that is that the creation of these schools will drain resources from Montana’s excellent education system while putting in place dubious educational facilities that are not only not guaranteed to serve Montana students, but could actually harm their intellectual development.

Initially, it’s worth noting that it’s given Speaker Knudsen far too much credit to suggest that he drafted this proposal, which actually comes from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, often word-for-word from their “model legislation” page. The Center for Media and Democracy point out that this model legislation is actively promoted by the right-wing ALEC organization, which approves of the law’s attempt to “exempt those charters from many state laws, and exempt the charters from existing collective bargaining agreements between a district and its employees.” Back in the 2013 session, when similar legislation was proposed and defeated, Knudsen tried to distance himself from ALEC, a specious effort to distance himself from the right-wing bill machine that is behind so much of the Montana Republican agenda these days.

And because there’s no crackpot anti-education proposal in the Montana Legislature without Jeff Laszloffy being involved, his Montana Family Foundation has been linked to the charter school movement—and he can now count on the House Education Committee being chaired by his daughter, while the vice chair is a former employee of the organization, someone who described her “main focus [as] a charter-school bill when working for Laszloffy.

Now that we have a sense of the players involved, let’s turn to the educational outcomes.


The best reason to reject the charter school movement is simple: it doesn’t work. Researchers at Stanford University conducted a thorough study of the nation’s charter schools and found that “students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.” Specifically, their research showed that

17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

A Mathematica study of 2,300 students across 15 states confirmed the Staford study, finding that “charter schools did not significantly affect most of the other outcomes examined, including attendance, student behavior, and survey-based measures of student effort in school.”

Despite claims of increased accountability, a study by proponents of charter schools found that few are ever closed for poor performance. Hell, they even spend more money on administration than traditional public schools. Those costs would be obvious in Montana, with the duplication of administrative and logistical costs inherent in the creation of parallel school districts.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that charter schools would be ineffective and waste money. The kind of unregulated charter school/school choice Montana Republicans are pursuing would be a disaster for Montana students.


Charter schools also offer the potential for enormous fraud and waste. The Center for Popular Democracy notes that, under limited reporting, we’ve already seeing over $100 million dollars wasted on the charter movement in the U.S.:

With at least $100 million tax dollars lost to fraud, waste, or abuse by charter operators in the United States, there is significant progress needed before the charter sector can claim best practices on fraud and abuse.

It’s so bad that just in the past few months, charter schools have had to suddenly close in North Carolina, Florida, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.


Another danger is that the kind of privatization Montana Republicans are calling for will lead to direct religious instruction at taxpayer expense.

Talking Points Memo offered an instructive example of what kind of education Montanans might receive if they fall for this scheme in its discussion of the Shekinah Learning Institute, which took $17 million to educate “at-risk children,” but spending a great deal of money on religious instruction and church expenses.

That Jeff Laszloffy is behind the movement for privatized education in Montana should make it clear that we can expect that kind of instruction in Montana, too, if Hill’s plan comes to fruition. Taxpayer dollars simply should not be spent to promote a particular religion or teach that evolution didn’t happen. Mr. Laszloffy’s children can call themselves “valedictorians” of the Laszloffy School all they want; Montana taxpayers just shouldn’t have to pay for the damage that’s being done. While the bill prohibits religious organizations from directly running these public schools, there is no language in the bill that can prevent these religious groups from simply creating a shell non-profit organization to run a school under their “religious philosophy.”


Even when charter schools seem successful, the results are often illusory. How can a charter school inflate the academic results of their students? With a good old-fashioned combination of segregation, exclusion of students with disabilities, and misreporting data.

Professor Myron Orfield says that “ charters are an engine of racial segregation. They are more segregated than public schools and cause public schools to be more segregated than they otherwise would be,” and the available data support his claim.

Charter schools also have fewer students with disabilities, which is one of the ways they can do the most damage to public schools. Students with disabilities require greater resources, and if charter schools are allowed to restrict their admittance, pressure will increase on public schools.

Charter schools are more likely to being involved in dishonest test scores,


Knudsen’s bill also violates the Montana Constitution, as its legal note points out. Specifically, it violates Article X, Section 9 (3) (a), which gives the power of oversight of Montana schools to the Board of Public Education.


Even former proponents of school choice have acknowledged that the movement seems based far more on over-promising results than actually achieving results for students.

“If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric.” Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as “stalled,” in part by the fact that many “new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally,” and in part because results in Milwaukee were not “as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped.” Likewise, Peterson argues, “the jury on charter schools is still out.”

As Frederick Hess notes, school choice programs probably do improve educational outcomes in urban neighborhoods blighted with terrible schools and decades of mismanagement. That’s simply not the reality in Montana, where despite Republican efforts to demonize teachers and public education, our students outperform the nation as a whole on every measure of educational outcomes, while spending less per student than many states.

Representative Knudsen seems aware of this problem, as his bill limits the development of charter schools in small communities like his own, setting large districts in the state against smaller ones, and undermining his claim that charters will benefit all students. I think a reasonable amendment to the bill would be to mandate a study in the Culbertson School District and see how things turn out in 5-10 years.

Knudsen’s bill not only promises poor educational outcomes for Montana students, but it also offers the additional conservative dog whistle benefit of undermining both the union movement and teacher certification, as the bill prohibits charter schools from mandating union membership and ends the requirement that teachers undergo certification to provide instruction.

Of course, that’s what this spectacle is primarily about. Given that few Montana parents would pull their students from public school to attend charter schools run by the likes of organizations like the Montana Family Foundation, the real purpose of the bill is to weaken the unions who oppose the right wing agenda to turn Montana into Wisconsin. Don’t believe that this is about children; it’s about finding a way to undermine public sector unions before privatizing as much of the school system as the reactionary Republicans can.

Montana’s education is for its students, not for ideologues and not for out-of-state legislation mills. Reject this bad bill.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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