Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen highlighted several legislative priorities for the state’s public schools Thursday, including a push to offer increased funding security for special needs students in Montana. 

Arntzen’s statements came during a formal State of Education address forecasting the road ahead in 2021 for an education system still contending with the challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back to this time last year, Arntzen said, there’s much that students and educators likely took for granted. Hugs from friends, high-fives from teachers, gatherings in school cafeterias and family attendance at extracurricular events — the latter a topic she raised during last fall’s campaign season — made Arntzen’s list.

“We are living in historic times,” Arntzen said. “A time that has challenged us to identify solutions for the health and safety of our families and our communities.”

Montana has already begun to explore some of the solutions Arnzten mentioned, such as hybrid learning models involving both in-person and remote instruction. Others are ongoing efforts by OPI, including its appeal to the federal government to halt standardized testing for another year.

On the legislative front, Arntzen singled out House Bill 46, carried by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, that would include special education funding in the state’s primary education funding formula. That effort, which hit a delay in committee in late January, was one of four key lawmaking priorities outlined by OPI last December.

“There are many challenges that face our special needs students that are in each of our 821 schools across our great state,” Arntzen said. “One of my top legislative priorities is to focus specifically on these students.”

Arntzen also acknowledged the Education Interim Committee’s work on legislation addressing the needs of at-risk students in residential or in-state treatment facilities, as well as a measure from Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, to allow children of relocated military families to preliminarily enroll in local schools before establishing Montana residency. The latter, House Bill 68, has already passed the Legislature with unanimous bipartisan support.

Arntzen made no mention several controversial pieces of education legislation making the rounds this session, which include revisions to K-12 human sexuality instruction and a prohibition on transgender women and girls participating in women’s school sports.

In her closing, as in her opening, Arntzen was candid about how challenging the past year has been for Montana teachers, students and parents. Quoting extensively from the beginning of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” she described the state as having entered a “spring of hope” that she hopes the state can extend into “a summer of opportunity.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.