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Over the past few months, the Montana Board of Public Education has busied itself with a seemingly endless stream of regulatory rewrites touching nearly every corner of the state’s K-12 public education system. The latest action on that front came Thursday as board members advanced a revised set of standards for educator preparation programs proposed by Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.

Arntzen’s recommended changes to those standards generated more than 60 public comments last month, and the board meticulously picked through each in an effort to refine and improve regulatory language that, once adopted, will remain in effect for the next decade. While many of those comments sought to correct essentially technical issues — for example, including the names of specific national associations or accrediting councils — the board’s review also waded into territory that has become intensely politicized during the past two years.

At several points in the revised regulations, Arntzen had proposed removing references to “social emotional learning,” one of a growing list of academic phrases targeted by national conservative groups critical of the public education system. Board member Madalyn Quinlan responded to the first such deletion by noting that references to social emotional learning are “all over” the Office of Public Instruction’s website, and are “commonly used terms” for professional educators. Tim Tharp, one of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s latest additions to the board, seconded Quinlan’s response.

“For many, many years I have worn this bracelet that has a suicide prevention hotline number right on it, and my own brother died by suicide,” Tharp said. “We all who have spent time in classrooms know that academics are never going to happen unless those social and emotional needs are met first.”

Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis also strongly encouraged the board to reinsert the language during public comment, stating that while the words may have been politicized, “you all have the chance now to be the adults in the room in public education.”

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The board voted unanimously to reinsert the references to social emotional learning throughout the proposed revisions.

Thursday’s review of public comments focused solely on proposed changes to Chapter 58, one of three sections of administrative rule that OPI and the board are in varying stages of revising this year. Prior to tackling Chapter 58, the board spent several hours discussing a similar raft of rewrites to Chapter 55, a chunk of regulations governing Montana’s quality standards for public schools. Those changes, which will go out for public comment Oct. 7, sparked controversy over Arntzen’s proposal to eliminate existing student-based ratios for school counselors and librarians. Earlier this summer, the board also adopted changes to Chapter 57 — containing Montana’s rules for teacher licensing — that supporters argued would bolster educator recruitment and retention, and that critics feared would erode the quality of Montana educators.

The debate over social emotional learning echoed a board discussion earlier in the day rehashing a previous controversy involving the suggested addition of the word “equity” to Montana’s educator code of ethics. The suggestion triggered pushback last spring from both Arntzen and Gianforte over perceptions that “equity” is tied to a political agenda — pushback that ultimately contributed to the demise of the proposal. Board Chair Tammy Lacey on Thursday lamented the continued inability to include equity in the code, noting that it has a very specific definition in education circles.

In addition to restoring social emotional language to Chapter 58, the board systematically reinserted references to childhood trauma, adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed classroom management. Arntzen’s proposed revisions had stripped such references from sections outlining Montana’s expectations for the education and training of early childhood and middle-school educators, but more than 20 commenters including the Board of Public Education’s licensure committee urged that the language be reinstated.

“A lot of my professional development the last five years has centered around this topic,” East Helena teacher Jenny Murnane Butcher told the board in regards to adverse childhood experiences. “That was something that I didn’t get in my teacher preparation program that would have been really valuable heading into the classroom. I was expected to understand that.”

The proposed revisions to Chapter 58 will now be updated to reflect the changes fueled by public comment, and the board’s current timeline calls for full adoption of the new regulations early next year.

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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...