Between morning committee meetings and a packed afternoon agenda on the House floor earlier this month, seven Republican representatives gathered in a small meeting room inside the Montana Capitol. They included powerhouse figures in the state’s budgeting process and leaders of the chamber’s committee dedicated to all things academic, and their collective influence cuts across a swath of the Legislature’s ongoing deliberations impacting teachers, students and parents.
The topic of the moment was a raft of policy proposals that members of the group are sponsoring to address the various challenges facing Montana’s K-12 public schools. Each lawmaker has taken on a different target — early childhood literacy, college and career readiness, teacher recruitment and retention — that add up to a broad-reaching package of reforms.
“This is really a team effort amongst the people that — we have different views on various things, but we’re pretty committed, we’re very well aligned in the education arena,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, who chairs the subcommittee tasked with crafting Montana’s public education budget. “It makes it so much easier to get good legislation put together when you have a couple of different people looking at it.”
So far, most pieces of that package have found strong footing in the 2023 legislative session, drawing bipartisan support and buy-in from organizations representing teachers, school administrators, parents and elected trustees. One proposal from Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Montana City, adding a definition of remote instruction to state law passed the House unanimously last month. Other bills still in the pipeline are primed for a mixed reception from public education advocates, namely a pitch from House Education Committee Chair Fred Anderson to establish public charter schools in the state. But regardless of any particular bill’s reception, an underlying message is clear: Public education is one of the biggest issues on the minds of legislators this spring.
That point is emphasized not just by the package Bedey, Bertoglio, Anderson and their Republican colleagues are carrying. Democratic lawmakers are forwarding a growing number of education-centric recommendations of their own, several of which have already gained traction among legislators across the aisle. On the Republican caucus’ right flank, bills are emerging that illustrate a wide divide over how Montana’s education system should operate. There’s action happening in the Senate, too, where lawmakers have already debated issues related to curriculum and advanced a Democratic measure bolstering incentives for new teachers to start their careers in rural districts plagued by the state’s ongoing educator shortage.
That education has become the focus of such robust policymaking in 2023 is no accident. Aside from the fact that public schools represent one of the Legislature’s biggest financial commitments — roughly $2.4 billion, consistently a third of the state’s entire two-year budget — lawmakers spent a significant chunk of the recent interim learning about where the public education system is struggling. When, during the first week of the session, National Center on Education and the Economy President Jason Dougal told a gathering of legislators that only 60% of American students can accurately compare distances or convert currencies, several legislators in the room stirred uneasily. When Dougal added that only 14% of students can distinguish between fact and opinion, the collective discomfort was palpable.
Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, is well aware of such stats. Over the past two years, he’s served on a bipartisan group of 20 state legislators from across the country convened by the National Convention of State Legislatures to study the world’s highest-performing public education systems — and better understand why the U.S. isn’t one of them. The group’s work culminated last December in the release of a report titled “The Time Is Now” that outlines a high-level blueprint for where state and local leaders can most effectively direct their efforts. As the chair of Montana’s House Appropriations Committee, Jones is passing those insights along to his in-state cohorts.
“The time is now,” Jones told Montana Free Press this month. “If this can’t happen now and we can’t, with this much parental attention, this much school board attention, if we can’t move the needle here, then I fear that the public model will be in trouble and die.”
THE CASE FOR CHANGE
In June 2022, something unusual happened inside the Montana Capitol. Nearly three dozen representatives from every branch and layer of government with a direct hand in the state’s public education system convened in a single room. Democratic and Republican lawmakers mingled alongside members of the Board of Public Education and Board of Regents. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen sat within arm’s reach of Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and, opposite them, Lance Melton was poised to speak for Montana’s far-flung local school boards.
Jones later reflected, in the opening week of the 2023 session, that the summer meeting was the first time in “remembered history” that all of the state’s constitutional authorities in the education sphere gathered in a single room. The purpose was to discuss how all those players might work in tandem to improve the state’s public school system and enhance learning opportunities for Montana students. First, they had to agree on an answer to one key question: Is there a case for change?
The short answer was yes. Montana’s dismal national ranking on teacher pay and declining proficiency of students in core subjects such as reading and math both featured heavily in the conversation. So did Dougal’s repeated reminders that American students are lagging a year or more behind their academic peers in countries like China, Singapore and Canada, a situation he attributed not to any one school or teaching style but rather to the country’s outdated education model. At that early-session confab, Jones deployed the same comparison he later used in talking with MTFP: the former retail giant Sears, now reduced to fewer than two dozen stores nationwide.
“The employees at Sears worked hard, but it didn’t make them successful because they didn’t make the change to become a Walmart or an Amazon,” Jones told MTFP this month. “Sometimes you have to update your model. Even if you were an institution, where Sears was about 1% of the gross national product in the country at one time, if you don’t update, you can disappear.”
Montana schools have been wrestling with the symptoms of decline for years. Local officials across the state are routinely unable to hire for hundreds of open educator positions annually through traditional recruitment, often relying on substitutes or retirees to fill vacancies. And according to data from the state Office of Public Instruction, the number of high school students testing as “novice” in English Language Arts has increased 10% since the 2015-16 academic year. In math, it’s increased nearly 15%.
The COVID-19 pandemic served to both deepen many of those challenges and heighten public awareness of them. Educators frequently talk about the long-term impacts of instructional disruption on student learning, and about the lingering social and emotional struggles students are experiencing, particularly in lower grade levels. But Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, also sees the pandemic as a valuable lesson in Montana’s ability to be nimble in meeting the emerging needs of students, parents and teachers.
“I think before COVID, many people saw the need for change in education in general, and COVID helped us see that we can make some quick changes,” O’Brien, a member of last year’s Education Interim Committee and this session’s Senate Education and Natural Resource Committee, told MTFP this month. “It was painful. It was a painful way to learn that lesson. But I remain hopeful that COVID helped ignite some of the changes that we will be seeing.”
On the House side, Bertoglio made the same argument in a separate interview. Seated alongside her fellow leaders of the Republican-led reform package, she said COVID-19 “threw us into an opportunity” to embrace change in full view of an attentive public. If the Legislature can’t achieve such changes now, she continued, “I’m not sure when you can achieve it.”
Additional factors have compounded the existing case for change, among them the rising cost of living for educators in larger districts throughout the state. Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents the vast majority of public school employees, points to low wages as the leading cause of Montana’s ongoing teacher shortage — and an area where the Legislature could make meaningful change in 2023.
At the top of her list of bills that could move the needle on teacher recruitment and retention is House Bill 332, a proposal carried by Bedey that would invest $60 million in one-time federal funds to create a statewide health insurance trust for public school districts. Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, characterized it as a “good bipartisan bill” to MTFP last month, and it passed a preliminary vote on the House floor Feb. 21 with 68 Democrats and Republicans banding together in support.
“I have said over and over again, because I’ve heard it from our members, that while their pay compared to the average in their town maybe doesn’t look so bad on paper, they’re losing a ton of their take-home pay to their health insurance costs,” Curtis said. “If districts will opt in to this health insurance pool and if the Legislature creates it and if this Legislature funds the start-up, we could really, really see a difference in the take-home pay of teachers, which will entice them to work here instead of leaving.”
Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, who chairs the Senate Education and Natural Resources Committee and helped craft the bill, noted that the potential benefits extend not just to teachers but to “the whole staff,” from custodians to cafeteria workers. He added that, as with other education reforms proposed this session, the state’s $2 billion budget surplus presents a rare opportunity to implement such a significant change.
“This is our one shot to get something done,” Salomon said of the insurance trust. “So we took it.”
HB 332 isn’t on the list of bills Bedey provided to MTFP that he considers the most significant pieces of the reform package he’s helped spearhead. But a proposal that is on that list would expand an incentive program created in 2021 to increase pay for teachers in the first three years of their careers. House Bill 588, introduced by Jones last week, extends eligibility for that incentive to include teachers working under provisional licenses, which are issued by OPI to individuals who don’t qualify for a full teaching license but are working to fulfill those requirements. HB 588 would also clarify that the incentives do not apply to educators operating under an emergency employment authorization from the state.
Elsewhere in the package, Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, is sponsoring an effort to bolster reading proficiency among Montana’s youngest students. The interim featured several lengthy discussions between lawmakers and educators about federal requirements to provide educational opportunities for special needs students under the age of 5. Those conversations also touched on a broader ambition to increase student literacy by third grade — the prevailing argument being that, by that point, students need to be reading to learn rather than learning to read.
Barker’s House Bill 352 allows locally elected school boards to provide targeted intervention for young children who aren’t expected to meet grade-level reading benchmarks, and directs the Board of Public Education and OPI to come up with a research-based method for gauging those students’ trajectories. Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, framed the proposal as “building a better foundation” for K-2 kids so they can “attack the science and history and complex reading” they’ll encounter later in school. Barker concurred, noting that 2021 assessment data from OPI indicates 54% of Montana students in grades 3-8 can’t read at grade level.
“This is really addressing not only the adequacy and the quality of our education across the state, but there’s a really strong business case for our taxpayers, for our parents, and for our workforce and the employers across the state to be able to intervene earlier on in a very targeted way,” Barker said.
Further up the academic chain, Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, has taken lead on a piece of the Republican puzzle aimed at college and career readiness in grades 6-12. House Bill 257 revisits a Jones-sponsored law passed in 2019 that helps districts establish STEM courses and career and technical education programming. Sprunger’s changes would increase the amount of district funding dedicated to efforts under the Advanced Opportunity Act and raise the total that districts are required to spend on out-of-pocket costs that would otherwise be incurred by the parents of participating students.
According to OPI’s latest report, 31 Montana schools received money through the act last year to support community college partnerships, workplace learning initiatives, college tours and career exploration efforts — all of which must be approved by the state to qualify for funding. For Sprunger, it’s one of numerous programs directed toward individualized learning that schools in her district have embraced.
“There may be some divisive topics around education, but there are some things that a lot of people agree on: career and technical education, hands-on opportunities, customized experiences for the students,” Sprunger said. “Those are all things that our constituents are asking for consistently across party lines.”
HB 257 made its first appearance on the House floor Tuesday, passing on a bipartisan 88-11 vote.
Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, ties each of these proposals, along with numerous others separately kicking around the Capitol, directly to issues highlighted during the interim. The various constitutional authorities involved in that historic June meeting, plus a second meeting in September, settled on four key areas for focus in the policymaking sphere: proficiency-based learning, career and technical education, the retention of teachers and transformation of their profession, and early childhood education. So far, Melton said, he’s “excited” by the prospect for progress in all four areas this spring.
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“It’s early in the session, so call me back in a month and I might be completely deflated or I might actually be even more energized than I am now,” he told MTFP. “But I think that we’ve got the right mix of ideas presented before the Legislature such that there are opportunities for them to successfully execute on every one of those priorities from the strategic planning.”
In an emailed response to questions regarding education reform policies this session, OPI did not reference any of the bills Jones and his colleagues have sponsored. According to OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary, Superintendent Arntzen’s top four legislative priorities are primarily budgetary in nature: a 3% inflationary adjustment for education funding, which has already cleared both chambers; money for long-term maintenance of the agency’s new teacher licensing system; a one-time increase for audiology equipment; and tuition coverage for residential mental health treatment, which passed the House this month.
“The Superintendent appreciates that there is a focus on transparency in education in this session,” O’Leary wrote on Arntzen’s behalf. “There is also a large focus on family, parent and student-centric legislation, as well as our Montana teachers, that will continue to put our Montana students first.”
O’Leary also listed seven other bills Arntzen believes will result in direct improvements for students and teachers. Those include a measure expanding eligibility requirements for career coaches, a bill requiring school boards to adopt grievance policies, a bill prohibiting schools from disciplining students who refer to transgender peers by a gender or name they no longer identify with, and a bill granting the state superintendent authority to “deny the use of textbooks that, for example, include CRT.” CRT stands for “critical race theory.”
THE REST OF THE PUZZLE
Not every proposal in the House Republican package is likely to attract the widespread buy-in that Barker’s targeted intervention or Bedey’s insurance trust have. One such bill is a proposal introduced by Anderson last week aimed at one of the thorniest issues in Montana’s long-running public education debate: charter schools.
The stated intent of House Bill 549 is to “create a limited number of innovative and high-performing public charter schools.” Melton, whose organization helped to craft the legislation, said the bill is “180 degrees away” from other charter school proposals that have debuted in the Legislature in that it assigns authority over those schools to locally elected school boards and the Board of Public Education. Anderson considers HB 549 a continuation of work done in past sessions to remove “impairments” to innovation in the public school system.
“There’s really nothing that you can’t do in a public school that you can do on a charter, but I think part of the problem with the adoption of this is that for so long, school has been very, very, very traditional,” Anderson said. “All of a sudden, boards are not aware of the latitude they have, and I don’t think that a lot of administrators are. So getting that change to them is difficult.”
Curtis anticipates that her union will strongly oppose the measure, as it has routinely opposed past proposals to establish charter schools in the state. Others may frame HB 549 as a carefully crafted compromise, she said, but MFPE still sees charter schools as a move toward “privatizing — for profit — our public education system.”
Curtis expressed similar concern about a non-package proposal from Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, to establish education savings accounts for special needs students. Under House Bill 393, funding for those accounts would come from per-student state payments to local districts, and allow parents of students with disabilities to seek reimbursements for tuition, textbooks, tutoring, online programming and other educational materials and services.
In introducing the bill to the House Education Committee last week, Vinton characterized it as a way to ensure that every student has access to the instruction and materials necessary to realize their full educational potential. Critics including MFPE countered that HB 393 would redirect public dollars to private entities and reduce funding for local resources that will still be required for non-participating special needs students.
“While some families have the resources and time to look for other educational options for their children, many families do not have this opportunity and rely on the public school system to provide education, occupational and speech therapy and more,” Jenny Murnane Butcher, deputy director of Montanans Organized for Education, told the committee. “We need to increase support for the programs we have now to ensure the equity of services for all students, not remove funding from public schools.”
On the Senate side, the push for education reform has manifested in a series of proposals impacting students and teachers alike. O’Brien received a shout-out from Gov. Greg Gianforte during his second State of the State address Jan. 25 for carrying a measure defining what proficiency-based learning means in state law. The gist of Senate Bill 8, O’Brien told MTFP, is to make clear that student performance in Montana isn’t measured by seat-time or advancement from one grade to the next, but rather on students’ grasp of the material in front of them.
O’Brien has also set her sights on the teacher recruitment and retention side of the equation with a bill to expand the eligibility requirements for teachers in Montana’s educator loan assistance program. Senate Bill 70 passed the Senate earlier this month on a bipartisan 46-4 vote. From the Republican caucus, Salomon introduced a bill this week to create an alternate pathway to full licensure for teachers, one that mirrors regulatory licensing changes that were discussed by the Board of Public Education last year but drew stiff opposition from MFPE and other education advocates.
Teacher retention in particular is the thrust of House Bill 445, carried by Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena. The freshman legislator, former two-time candidate for state superintendent and 2018 Montana Teacher of the Year has proposed a new statewide program to provide structured one-year mentoring for early career teachers administered through the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
Speaking with MTFP recently, Romano said one of the most challenging post-pandemic impacts in education has been “teacher burnout.” Educators are working doubly hard to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of their students, she said, and when you pile on inflation and the rising cost of housing, “teachers are just really stressed.” Romano sees the fostering of a collaborative, supportive environment for teachers as a critical step in combating that stress.
“I kind of thought about what has helped me in my career, and it’s been just amazing teachers,” Romano said, noting that a mentorship program was one of her primary talking points during her 2016 run for superintendent. “This has been a passion of mine for a while.”
All of the aforementioned policy efforts represent only a fraction of the education-centric legislation making the rounds this session. Legislators have already engaged in heated debates over obscenity laws, the treatment of transgender students and the distinction between scientific fact and scientific theory — many of them driven by the conservative-leaning parental rights movement. Other bills holding the promise of similar contention are just now making their appearance, among them a proposal from Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, to enshrine an extensive list of parental rights in state law.
But there are bits of bipartisanship in the mix, too, enough to give Melton some hope that the collective desire to improve Montana’s existing public education system will quell any push to weaken or abandon it entirely.
“There are a lot of ideas over at the Legislature that propose different ways to build things that will improve schools, that will expand their capacity to serve kids well,” Melton said. “And even when we don’t agree with those ideas or where we have slightly different views on some of those ideas, there’s a big difference between the legislator that’s trying to build up and improve and expand the capacity of our public schools versus those who are looking for the door.”
The education reform package put forth by House Republicans contains numerous moving pieces, including some that have not yet appeared before a legislative committee. Here’s a rundown of the most significant components as identified by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.
House Bill 352: Providing targeted interventions to support third grade reading proficiency, sponsored by Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts.
House Bill 257: Increasing funding for district initiatives under Montana’s advanced opportunity programs, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell.
House Bill 214: Clarifying state laws related to remote instruction in public schools, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Montana City.
House Bill 203: Revising laws governing local policies and funding for out-of-district student attendance, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.
House Bill 181: Revising qualifications for state superintendent of public instruction in Montana law, sponsored by Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson.
House Bill 549: Authorizing the establishment of public charter schools in Montana, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls.
House Bill 588: Expanding eligibility for incentives to increase starting teacher pay, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.
LC 959: Expanding remote instruction offerings for students through the Montana Digital Academy. As of Feb. 21, the request was in the final stages of the drafting process.
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