Gov. Greg Gianforte and members of the State Board of Education convene Friday for a broad discussion about goals and challenges shared across Montana's K-12 and higher ed systems.

MISSOULA — Leaders of Montana’s K-12 and higher education systems convened on the University of Montana campus Friday to discuss strategic goals and ongoing challenges to improve the quality of education for students across the state.

Addressing an in-person meeting of the State Board of Education, Gov. Greg Gianforte gushed about the scenes he’s witnessed firsthand this year in classrooms from Frenchtown to Glendive. He lauded the passage of a new law in the 2021 Legislature that provides incentives for schools to increase starting teacher pay and efforts to increase financial aid for college students and expand flexibilities in licensing of qualified teachers in Montana. However, Gianfore said the state also faces “heavy-handed mandates” from Washington, D.C., that “threaten our schools and students.”

“I’ll continue working with Superintendent [Elsie] Arntzen and our congressional delegation to rescind the CDC illegal mask mandate on school busses,” Gianforte said. “I’ll also continue working with Attorney General [Austin] Knudsen to prevent vaccine mandates, which are illegal in Montana. While I continue to encourage Montanans to consult their health care provider in getting vaccinated, they should do so voluntarily, not under an edict that has not been passed through the legislative process.”

Gianforte applauded the Montana School Boards Association for withdrawing its membership in the National School Boards Association over an episode relating to the debate about parental rights and the federal response to threats from members of the public against teachers and school officials nationally. He encouraged other education associations to evaluate their membership in national organizations to ensure those relationships are in the best interest of Montana.

The State Board of Education is comprised of Gianforte, Arntzen, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian, the Montana Board of Regents and the Montana Board of Public Education. Gianforte listed his key priorities for Montana’s education system, which include:

  • continuing to address the underlying costs of education to help students enter the workforce faster and with less debt;
  • expand public-private partnerships, such as UM’s Accelerate Montana, to “better meet the needs of students and Montana employers”; and
  • increase educational opportunities for traditional and nontraditional students, including in-person and virtual instruction options.

Board of Regents Chair Casey Lozar informed the group of the “incredibly impressive strides” Montana’s higher education system has made this year in recruiting and retaining Native American students. Data collected from the Montana University System this fall showed an 8% increase in Native student enrollment statewide over the previous year and a retention rate increase of 8%, Lozar said. 

“We’re doing a better job of holding on to these students,” Lozar said, adding that at the University of Montana alone, Native student enrollment increased nearly 25%. “This is just incredibly exciting news, and while there’s more work to be done, the progress is real and it’s substantial and it’s been strategic.”

Lozar also noted that the MUS has also made progress in improving the pathway for transfer students from tribal colleges to state institutions, with Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College and Rocky Boy’s Stone Child College joining a standardized state course-numbering system this year to make those transfers easier. 

Lozar said there was a significant increase in 2021 in the use of an online college application portal called Apply Montana, which allows a prospective student to apply to any state campus without paying an application fee. According to Lozar, more than 9,000 students submitted applications through the portal this year, and he estimated the fee savings for Montanans at roughly $500,000. Lozar said the MUS plans to scale up a new pilot project called Montana 10, which offers focused support for students in key areas that typically impact retention.

“This year alone, we saw a 16 percent retention gain from fall to spring in the Montana 10 cohort as compared to the non-Montana 10 participants,” Lozar said.

Board of Public Education Chair Tammy Lacey shared a brief glimpse of what she and her fellow board members discussed during a packed three-day agenda. The top note was a comprehensive strategic plan the board approved prior to the State Board of Education meeting. That plan, Lacey explained, not only honed the Board of Public Education’s mission statement but also laid out six broad goals the board will focus on in the coming months. Among those goals are revising the state’s standards for school accreditation and teacher and administrator licensing through an ongoing regulatory review process, and promoting safe learning environments for students and for teachers.

“We know that students and teachers can’t learn and work unless they feel that they are safe and supported in their educational institutions,” Lacey said. “So we’ll work with educational partners to help school districts navigate a variety of federal and state regulations and funding and other aspects in order to provide a safe environment.”

Lacey added that as the entity overseeing the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind, one of the board’s immediate priorities will be to hire a permanent superintendent for the school. Paul Furthmyre has been filling the position on an interim basis for more than a year. Lacey said the board is currently accepting applications and will close that application window on January 1.

“We, the people around this table, need to double down on our efforts to market and explain why some level of higher education beyond a K-12 diploma is so important. I think we’re missing the boat.”

Robert Nystuen, member of the Montana Board of Regents

During her remarks, Arntzen said that the Office of Public Instruction is currently in the process of streamlining its teacher licensing process with the development of an online licensing portal. That effort is funded by $13.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds made available through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We will be up and running by May,” Arntzen said. “Between May and August is when we recertify and license about 5,000 teachers. We’re going to get out of paper, go to digital, be great in service to whoever, wherever teachers are going.”

Arntzen added that OPI will partner with the Montana Department of Administration to map broadband needs in schools across the state to expand broadband access, also backed by federal pandemic relief funding.

During board comment, Regent Robert Nystuen tempered these optimistic assessments of Montana’s education system with a gut-check culled from enrollment figures presented to the regents the previous day. According to those figures, Nystuen said, Montana has experienced a 10% decline since 2010 in the number of graduating high school seniors who have gone on to postsecondary education. Nystuen said of those who do, 12% go to out-of-state institutions and 28% enroll in campuses in the Montana University System.

“Half the students say, ‘I’m not going to go to college,’ and as a former private-sector guy, retired, I find that trend to be most concerning,” Nystuen said. “We, the people around this table, need to double down on our efforts to market and explain why some level of higher education beyond a K-12 diploma is so important. I think we’re missing the boat.”

Mary Heller from the Board of Public Education responded to Nystuen’s concern by pointing out that Montana students may be embracing educational opportunities outside of the traditional higher education model. She cited the example of a 2020 graduate from Helena’s Capital High School who had participated in the school’s automotive program. The Monday after his graduation ceremony, Heller said, that student started a well-paying job at an automotive dealership. He walked directly into a viable career, she continued, one that includes opportunities for ongoing training and certification.

“While I think that two-year colleges or community colleges, tribal colleges, four-year universities are important in some fields, I do not want to forget that there are other forms of education,” Heller said. “And I think we need to take a serious look at those. I think we need to exalt those.”

Heller’s statements spoke directly to Gianforte’s earlier point regarding his desire to better reflect the needs of Montana employers in the state’s education system. Gianforte took the opportunity to voice his support for workplace experience as an educational tool. The Legislature took a major step in that direction this spring, Gianforte said, by passing a bill that broadened the ability of local school officials to allow students to pursue on-the-job learning in lieu of certain core curriculum requirements.

“It’s another tool we put in the box,” Gianforte said. “It won’t be the right thing for every community, but it will be looked at.”

Friday’s meeting was largely informational, offering the various state boards and agencies a chance to discuss their respective plans and shared goals. The Board of Public Education and the Board of Regents will meet again separately in January.

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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.