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Plaintiffs ask court to strike down privatized school bill

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News from Rylee Sommers-Flannagan, Upper Seven Law

HELENA — Late on Feb. 6, 2024, public school plaintiffs—a diverse group that includes the Montana Quality Education Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Montana as well as eight individual Montana teachers, parents, voters, and taxpayers—moved for summary judgment in their suit challenging House Bill 562, which creates an unaccountable system of publicly funded privatized schools.

In September, finding that plaintiffs were likely to ultimately succeed in striking the law, the district court temporarily blocked the bill’s implementation to allow the litigation to proceed and prevent Montanans’ rights from being violated in the meantime.  As plaintiffs say in their motion, the bill “creates an extraconstitutional privatized school system that mimics the existing public school system’s structure, uses public dollars to subsidize unaccountable private education, and excludes community members from exerting any influence at the ballot box.” 

“If HB 562 is implemented, it will wreak havoc on our state’s public schools and rob Montana children of the educational opportunity we have promised them,” said Jessica Felchle, a Billings public school teacher with children who attend Laurel Public Schools.  “HB 562 would harm my students, and I can’t let that happen.”

HB 562 describes its unchecked system of privatized schools euphemistically as “community choice schools,” but insulates them from the Board of Public Education and funds them on the taxpayer’s dime.  Plaintiffs point out that HB 562 commits a slew of constitutional violations.  Not only does the law reduce public school funding, ensure unequal educational opportunities, and gut school safety and quality requirements, but it also usurps the supervisory authority of the constitutionally mandated Board of Public Education, and the carefully preserved control of local school boards.  What’s more, it violates all Montanans’ rights of suffrage and equal protection by excluding anyone not affiliated with the newly created privatized schools from participating in their governing board elections.

“By privatizing public education in Montana, this bill would harm every single local public school,” said Amanda Curtis, President of the Montana Federation of Public Employees. “It hurts everyone: students, teachers, voters, and communities across the state.  We cannot and will not allow the legislature to pull taxpayer money from public school classrooms to fund an unconstitutional private school scheme.”

“Public education is the foundation for success in Montana—it fuels our best and brightest and gives our children the opportunity to achieve the American dream,” Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, Executive Director of Upper Seven Law and plaintiffs’ counsel said.  “HB 562 would do away with basic state law requirements that set high expectations for teachers and keep students safe.  It violates the Montana Constitution and it must be struck down.”

If the plaintiffs’ motion is granted, the effect would be a final, permanent determination that HB 562 is unconstitutional and unenforceable.  The state must respond to plaintiff’s motion in 21 days.

About Upper Seven Law:

Upper Seven Law is a Montana-based nonprofit law firm dedicated to holding the powerful accountable.

 About the Organizational Plaintiffs:

Montana Quality Education Coalition is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Helena. 

The League of Women Voters of Montana is a chapter of the national nonprofit League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization based in Helena, Montana. 



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