The Montana House forwarded a proposal to Senate lawmakers this week to eliminate a 35-year-old advisory council tasked with assisting the Board of Public Education in its oversight of educator quality in the state’s public schools.

The Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council, or CSPAC, was established by the Legislature in 1987 to supply the board with from-the-field insights on issues including educator licensing, professional and ethical standards, and the efficacy of teacher preparation programs on in-state college campuses. House Bill 231, introduced by Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, would strike that law from Montana’s code books at the request of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office — part of Gianforte’s sprawling red-tape relief effort

“There’s not a need for CSPAC to be specifically named in statute and to exist in perpetuity,” Dylan Klapmeier, Gianforte’s education advisor, told the House Education Committee earlier this month. “The board and [the Office of Public Instruction] have the ability to create advisory councils as they see fit for their needs at any given time based on their priorities and resource allocations towards those priorities.”

Klapmeier further noted that financial and administrative responsibility for CSPAC currently falls to the Board of Public Education, which, as Montana’s smallest state agency, operates with two and a half staffers and an annual budget of roughly $400,000. HB 231, he added, would give the board “more flexibility” in how it allocates those resources.

The proposal prompted immediate pushback from the Montana Federation of Public Employees and from Montanans Organized for Education, a grassroots organization headed by former Democratic state lawmaker Moffie Funk. Opponents characterized CSPAC as a “unique feature” on the state’s education landscape and a voice for school professionals. Existing law requires that the council’s seven members — all unpaid volunteers — represent an array of school positions, including an elementary teacher, a school administrator and a school board trustee. 

“It pains me to think that somehow it’s seen in the best interests to exclude professional educators from the discussion of what’s good for Montana students,” CSPAC Chair Kelly Elder said during opposing testimony Jan. 20, after noting that he was speaking not in his capacity as a council member but as a 30-year educator in the state. “I hope that you see the value in this advisory council and continue allowing teachers to have a voice at the table.” 

Rep. Eric Matthews, D-Bozeman, echoed Elders’ concern Monday during a floor discussion on HB 231. CSPAC has been a “workhorse” for the Board of Public Education for decades, Matthews said, and removing the professional insight its members provide “opens the door for all sorts of potential negative nefarious activity to happen in education.” Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, also spoke in defense of the “front-row perspective” that the council brings to the board’s deliberations.

“Eliminating CSPAC would be a slap in the face to educators across this state,” Romano said. “It would tell them that the Legislature does not value their voice, their work educating our children or their participation in keeping Montana’s public education system strong.”

Lawmakers supportive of the proposal emphasized several times on the House floor that nothing in HB 231 would prevent the Board of Public Education from convening ad hoc advisory councils to gather input on a variety of emerging education issues. If anything, HB 231 would enable the board to “refresh the policies that are now before us in the realm of education,” said Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson.

According to a fiscal note prepared by the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning, HB 231 would not result in a cost savings for the state as the Board of Public Education would “need to create a group of education professionals to continue the work of CSPAC.” The analysis further estimated CSPAC’s annual operating expenses at “approximately $5,000,” primarily for member travel to quarterly meetings.

Last spring, CSPAC became embroiled in a dispute over its proposed inclusion of the word “equity” in the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics during a routine revision. Gianforte criticized the addition as “promoting a political agenda … that jeopardizes our students’ opportunities.” He and Superintendent Elsie Arntzen also challenged CSPAC’s legal authority to implement the change, prompting the Board of Public Education to rescind the revisions and enact changes of its own.

Asked via email Wednesday whether that dispute had any impact on the governor’s request to eliminate CSPAC, spokesperson Brooke Stoyke told Montana Free Press, “the two matters — (1) making state government more efficient and responsive and saving taxpayer dollars and (2) CSPAC seeking to impose a policy change outside the bounds of its statutory authority — are entirely unrelated.”

HB 231 now passes to the Montana Senate, where it will likely be considered by the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee.

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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...