Lawmakers on the House Education Committee Monday heard testimony on a bill aimed at granting local school officials greater flexibility in meeting the needs of students, and broadening state requirements for teacher certification.

House Bill 246, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, proposes a lengthy list of alterations to public education laws in Montana. In introducing the measure, Bertoglio broke the changes down into three core ideas: supporting a personalized approach to learning, providing access to quality educators and empowering local school trustees with greater control over educational programs. HB 246 would achieve those goals in part by expanding K-12 learning opportunities to include work-based and experiential learning, and giving trustees the power to waive certain graduation requirements based on an individual student’s needs. It also establishes educational credit for students participating in on-the-job training, provided the experience includes classroom instruction and is planned and supervised by both the school and the employer.

The bill received support from a broad group of stakeholders, including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Contractors Association and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, spoke on behalf of his organization and other members of the Montana Public Education Center in encouraging the committee’s approval. Melton characterized many of the changes proposed in HB 246 as codifications of practices already approved by the Montana Board of Public Education.

“If I want to send my junior in high school to the University of Montana for a distanced learning course and they’re willing to provide it and give college credit, there’s nothing in the law that says that’s unlawful,” Melton said. “This makes it crystal clear that it’s authorized.”

No one spoke in opposition to Bertoglio’s bill Monday.

HB 246 would also broaden some teacher certification requirements in Montana, and establish a new class of license for trade-based teachers. A legal review authored by the Legislative Services Division did raise constitutional questions over those sections, noting specifically that the bill potentially infringes on the Board of Public Education’s authority over teacher licensing. 

That same concern arose in a legal review note on House Bill 186, a measure carried by Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls. Kerns’ bill proposes a slightly different change to teacher certification, calling for Montana to provide reciprocity for educators licensed in other states. The Montana Public Education Center and McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education, both testified in opposition to HB 186 before the House Education Committee last week.

In response to the constitutional concerns over HB 246, Melton said Monday that rather than establishing reciprocity for teachers from other states, Bertoglio’s bill would require the Board of Public Education to issue such licenses “based upon its assessment of the qualifications of each candidate.”

“In short,” Melton said, “we don’t believe that there is any constitutional frailty in the bill.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...