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On both sides of the aisle, across both chambers, public education has become one of the top issues in the 2023 Montana Legislature. Proposals about classroom curricula, educator certification, school choice and teacher mentoring continue to pop up left, right and center as lawmakers careen toward the session’s midpoint next Friday. One group of House Republicans has even put together a broad-reaching reform package for the state’s K-12 system.

The flurry of activity raises a curious question: Why now? Montana schools have been wrestling with a teacher shortage for years. Teachers who are hired make less money than their peers in other states. Student performance in math and English has steadily declined since at least 2015. The problems lawmakers are currently scrambling to fix are hardly new to anyone in the world of public education.

Part of the timing has to do with an extensive series of discussions last year among the major educational leaders in Montana, including statewide elected officials, appointed state boards, teachers, lawmakers and school board trustees. Together, they explored how targeted policy changes might move the needle on long-standing challenges in public schools. Many of those changes have debuted in the form of proposed legislation this spring. 

As Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, put it in a recent interview with Montana Free Press, the goal of many officials involved in those talks is to update the state’s decades-old K-12 model to respond to modern demands. “If you don’t update,” he said, “you can disappear.”

Lawmakers also cite COVID-19 as a major factor in the Legislature’s recent vigor to overhaul education policy. The pandemic heightened parental attention to public school issues and left students and teachers alike to deal with long-term impacts on academic proficiency and social-emotional well-being. For Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, it also highlighted how quickly Montana schools can change to meet new and emerging needs.

“It was a painful way to learn that lesson,” O’Brien said. “But I remain hopeful that COVID helped ignite some of the changes that we will be seeing.”

That’s not to say hot-button issues like sex-ed curricula, LGBTQ representation, parental rights and school choice aren’t driving their own series of showdowns in committee rooms and on chamber floors. For the most part, though, the post-pandemic policy debates that emerged from the interim are happening on a stage of their own. Which of these reform-centric proposals will gain enough support to survive the make-or-break deadline for passage to the next chamber known as transmittal? We’ll know that next Friday when the bell rings on the first half of the session.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Increase in Indigenous student enrollment at Montana State University Billings between spring 2022 and spring 2023. According to enrollment figures provided by the campus, 293 Indigenous students enrolled last spring, and 333 enrolled this semester. MSUB attributed the uptick in large part to a 19% increase in Indigenous student retention, noting that the campus’ Native American Achievement Center has “ramped up” recruitment, retention and engagement efforts and conducted a series of visits to tribal schools last fall to strengthen relationships with incoming students. MSUB also reported this week a 22% increase in the number of veteran and military-affiliated students over last spring.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🎣

The near-term composition of the commission that sets hunting and fishing regulations and reviews proposed land acquisitions forwarded by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is firming up. The Senate Fish and Game Committee on Tuesday voted 11-1 to reinstate two sitting members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission and approve two new appointees.

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s picks to fill open commission seats in southwestern and south-central Montana are Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows and Susan Kirby Brooke, a Bozeman resident who owns campgrounds near Three Forks and Glacier National Park. The full Senate is expected to approve their appointments during Friday’s afternoon Senate floor session. 

Burrows is assuming the position previously held by Jana Waller, who’s moving out of state and did not reapply for another term. Burrows is an environmental engineering graduate of Montana Tech who previously worked for the U.S. Air Force in Colorado Springs as a civilian engineer. He has served on the Ravalli County Commission since 2012 and in January assumed another four-year term in that seat. Burrows also serves on the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council and the Ravalli County Collaborative, both of which engage in natural resource management issues.

Brooke will take over the seat formerly held by Pat Byorth. She grew up on a Madison Valley ranch and previously served on the Board of Environmental Review, the quasi-judicial body that adjudicates disputes between the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the industries it regulates, and on the Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, which was tasked with helping the state negotiate compacts with tribes possessing federally reserved water rights.

Questions from committee members shed some light on how Burrows and Brooke intend to approach their positions on the commission, an essentially all-volunteer body that tends to draw heated public comment. (One commenter, Matt Lumley with the National Trappers Association and the Outdoor Heritage Coalition, said south-central Montana is “probably the hottest wildlife district in the nation” given the presence of bison, wolves and grizzlies, all three of which have some relationship to the Endangered Species Act.)

Asked by committee members how he intends to balance the interests of private property owners, the outfitting industry and non-outfitted hunters and anglers, Burrows said he would “err first and foremost on the side of landowners” while also recognizing the importance of hunting and angling on public lands.  

Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, asked Brooke about her understanding of Madison River recreation management, one of the hot-button issues Region 3 has grappled with for years. She said she thinks of it as an overcrowding issue, not a matter of fishery health. She added that she expects the state will eventually address crowding on its most popular rivers by moving to a daily permitted or ticketed system similar to what Glacier National Park instated in 2021

The committee also approved the reappointments of Phillips County rancher and current commission chair Lesley Robinson and Ismay rancher Bill Lane.

Serving on the commission is a “thankles, demanding and really hard job,” Flowers said at one point during the hearing. “Go with God.”

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Mara Silvers/MTFP

Supporters of LGBTQ rights gathered in the Capitol rotunda this week to rally against a slate of bills that would restrict transgender health care, drag performances and other aspects of LGBTQ life. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives gave initial approval on Thursday to House Bill 359, a ban on public drag performances, in a 66-33 vote. 

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

The Gist 📌

After three long weeks waiting for executive action, House Bill 317, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, finally got voted out of the House Human Services Committee on Wednesday. HB 317, often referred to as the Montana Indian Child Welfare Act — or MICWA for short — drew many supporters to the statehouse for its first hearing in early February. 

MICWA would enact protections and prioritize tribal placement for American Indian children who live under the supervision of child protective services or the foster care system. MICWA is based on the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, the main purpose of which is to ensure that Native children remain in the care of their family or tribe and prevent separation from their culture and identity if adopted by non-Native guardians. A challenge to the federal ICWA is currently awaiting a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court

“For too long, a lot of our kids have been lost in one system or another, whether it be this system or through residential schools,” Windy Boy told lawmakers on the House Human Services Committee. “It’s time to wake up and kind of move forward.”

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

From the Archive 🗄️

Lawmakers in the Montana Senate narrowly rejected a bill this week that would have stripped away the legal defense used by physicians who prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill adult patients at the patient’s request.

Despite its failure, Senate Bill 210 continued a decade-long effort to criminalize medical aid in dying, which is permitted through a wonky, delicate 2009 Montana Supreme Court holding in Baxter v. State. Versions of SB 210 have failed every session since that ruling, leaving Montana in a unique and strange sort of limbo unlike any other state that allows the practice.

A friend once asked what I would give a PowerPoint presentation about if I had only one story to tell and a receptive audience — I think Baxter v. State and the legal conundrum it has created in Montana is at the top of the list. Happily, MTFP and our public radio partners gave me the opportunity to do a version of that in the last season of our politics podcast, Shared State. Anyone curious about the issue can listen to Ep. 8, “The politics of death and dying.” 

—JoVonne Wagner, Legislative Fellow

On Our Radar 

Amanda — This interview with the author of “Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think About Animals” was a delight for its meshing of philosophy and biology. I loved it all the more for its reference to a familiar apple orchard outside Missoula.

Alex — The latest spate of mass shootings around the country has generated a lot of media coverage and debate this month. For its part, the Chronicle of Higher Education responded to last week’s deadly shooting at Michigan State University by focusing on how campus administrators have handled the immediate aftermath and what advice they’ve received from university and community leaders elsewhere who have been in their shoes in the past.

Mara — The city of Houston has been trying to advance affordable housing through a community land trust model. But even proponents of the strategy recognize it has hit a wall. The Texas Tribune explains the movement’s bust and where affordable housing advocates want to go from here. 

Eric — A Montana State University fraternity has frustrated its neighbors in Bozeman by being, well, a fraternity. A resulting lawsuit raises some fascinating questions about how city zoning code should treat student housing, and the MSU Exponent has the details.

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