The Montana Board of Public Education Friday unanimously approved a raft of changes to state regulations governing the quality of K-12 public schools, officially bringing to a close a multi-tiered process that began nearly three years ago.
Prior to the board’s vote, member Tim Tharp proclaimed the moment as the “end of a very long road,” and one that generated an “unprecedented” level of public comment. The revisions targeted a section of administrative rules — Chapter 55 — laying out how public schools in the state are accredited, from requirements around staffing levels and certification to policy- and curriculum-related expectations for locally elected trustees. Tharp, who chairs the board’s accreditation committee, noted that the board received feedback on the proposed changes from “literally thousands of teachers, administrators, school board trustees, legislators, college leaders, parents and other Montanans.”
“Our PDF of raw comment received officially by the Board of Public Ed alone was nearly 600 pages long,” said Tharp, adding that members of the public also sent comments to individual board members and weighed in during in-person meetings.
The process formally kicked off in September 2020 when the board voted to reopen Chapter 55 for proposed revisions. The Office of Public Instruction spent much of 2021 studying the rules and convened a 12-member task force in early 2022 to provide state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen with feedback on potential changes. At the same time, a 22-member committee began debating and drafting revisions for Arntzen’s consideration. Arntzen submitted her final recommendations to the Board of Public Education late last summer, leading to months of deliberation among members about which of those proposals to tweak, which to adopt and which to reject.
The process triggered a high-profile debate last spring over existing rules in Chapter 55 that mandate certain per-student ratios for librarians, counselors and instructional aides based on school size. Arntzen early on expressed a desire to eliminate those ratios, drawing widespread criticism and fueling an avalanche of public comment about the negative impact the elimination would have on students, staff and the quality of education in Montana. OPI’s task force largely disagreed with eliminating the ratios, and the rulemaking committee deadlocked on the issue with regard to school counselors, though it did recommend doing away with librarian ratios.
Arntzen ultimately asked the Board of Public Education to do away with the ratios entirely, but the board rejected the notion last November, citing overwhelming opposition in its decision to stick with Montana’s existing requirements.
State-mandated requirements for counseling and school library staff accounted for much of the public interest in the Chapter 55 revisions. But as Tharp stated Friday, the scope of the changes finally adopted by the board extends far beyond staffing levels. He specifically called out new graduation requirements involving financial literacy and civics classes, and a directive that districts collaborate with families and community members in developing workforce training and other college and career readiness opportunities for students.
Superintendent Elsie Arntzen says her recent recommendations to change school standards are geared toward expanding local control. But critics fear her proposals will erode educational quality and make staffing challenges worse.
The former was the focus of one final round of discussion Friday. During public comment, Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen drew the board’s attention to an ongoing legislative conversation over financial literacy in schools. House Bill 535, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, proposes adding definitions for financial literacy instruction to state law, and passed the House on a pre-transmittal vote last week. Board of Public Education Executive Director McCall Flynn responded that the board will likely oppose the bill on the basis that it would set a “bad precedent” of defining instructional standards in law as opposed to rule. Tharp added that if HB 535 fails, it will likely fall to OPI to provide a definition for financial literacy for the time being, as the existing rules do not contain such a definition.
Notice of the board’s Chapter 55 adoption will now pass to Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen for publication in the Montana Administrative Register, and the revised rules will go into effect July 1, 2023.
“The unprecedented flexibilities that we have put into practice along with additional graduation requirements will serve to improve education across the state of Montana,” Tharp told Montana Free Press via email Friday. “On behalf of the Board of Public Education, I’d like to thank the thousands of Montanans who participated in the process over the past many months along with the public comments received. We have done our best to create the best possible document we can with our focus on Montana’s students.”
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