montana capitol 2023
The Capitol building in Helena, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Leaders from a collection of organizations geared toward career-based opportunities for students appeared before lawmakers Friday to ask for more funding for their efforts across the state.

The groups, known as Career and Technology Student Organizations or CTSOs, focus on a broad swath of industries including agriculture, hospitality, construction and health care. Since 2013, the state has allocated roughly $550,000 annually to support the work of such organizations in preparing K-12 public school students to enter Montana’s workforce. Now those seven CTSOs are advocating for a $1.5 million bump in state funding through House Bill 382, an investment they attest will help address the state’s ongoing workforce shortage.

In introducing his proposal to the House Appropriations Committee Friday, Rep. Greg Oblander, R-Billings, noted that the added dollars would also help CTSOs extend their reach to students outside the public school system. According to a fiscal note prepared for the bill, each CTSO would receive $75,000 to fund a state director position, and the remaining dollars would be allocated equally among all seven existing CTSOs.

“We have not requested any increase [since 2013],” Oblander said. “And we’re here today to discuss trying to get some additional funding to expand the program into non-public, internet and home schools to allow more students to have the opportunity to experience what CTSO has to offer.”

HB 382, which includes new reporting requirements to track how CTSO money is spent, first appeared last month before the House Education Committee. At that time, nearly two dozen past and present CTSO members testified in favor of the bill, recounting how their participation afforded them access to valuable apprenticeships, competitive events and job-shadowing opportunities. Aspyn Bowman, a senior at Billings West High School, said that through her membership in Health Occupation Students of America (HOSA) she was able to shadow professionals in 12 different health care disciplines and witness four surgeries, including a hip replacement and a lower leg amputation.

“I am extremely grateful to have experienced this at such a young age,” Bowman told lawmakers. “After studying medicine and anatomy through diagrams and books throughout all of high school, it was amazing to see it turn into reality right in front of me.”

Other proponents of HB 382 last month included the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Montana Hospital Association, the Montana Contractors Association, the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana School Boards Association. No one testified in opposition. The bill passed unanimously out of the House Education Committee, and received strong bipartisan support on the House floor vote last week, advancing on an initial vote 89-11 and landing it before the House Appropriations Committee Friday. 

Proponents from HOSA, SkillsUSA Montana, the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) and other CTSOs largely focused Friday’s testimony on the fiscal impacts HB 382 would have on career education in the state, arguing that the return on the Legislature’s investment would be “a skilled workforce.” DECA State Director John Stiles estimated for committee members that, based on the collective CTSO enrollment number of 10,754 students during the 2021-22 school year, the $1.5 million allocation in HB 382 would equate to roughly $0.93 per student per week. 

“We’re funding chapter one of their success story after they graduate and they enter the workforce,” Stiles said. “We find that success in the 21st-century economy requires more than just skills. It requires the ethics, the leadership, the global awareness, and that’s what our students are learning.”

Sen. Barry Usher, R-Laurel, also rose in support of what he casually referred to as career and technical education’s “underfunded little sister.” And Brody Romano, a senior at Helena’s Capital High School and member of SkillsUSA Montana, offered lawmakers a few specific examples of how his group hopes to make use of added funds, including funding a summer leadership conference and covering membership fees for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to participate.

Members of the appropriations committee focused many of their questions on the degree of industry funding directed to CTSOs and the proposed equal split of state dollars to the organizations. Organization leaders assured lawmakers that local hospitals and other private sector entities do invest money and resources in CTSO efforts, in part in recognition of the skilled local workers those efforts will ultimately produce. However, HOSA State Director Katie Meier stressed that schools in smaller rural communities may not have access to such opportunities for outside support, making state dollars a critical resource. 

“Those small fire departments and ambulance departments don’t have that capacity to kick in that money to support those kids,” said Meier, adding that those same departments often struggle with EMT and other workforce shortages. “And so in those rural areas that we really need to target with some of these services, that big donor’s not sitting there.”

As for the proposed funding split among CTSOs, Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, asked why those allocations weren’t based on an individual organization’s annual performance. CTSOs are already scored by the Office of Public Instruction based on a variety of metrics, including membership growth. In response, Stiles informed the committee that the CTSOs jointly agreed to evenly divide the money between them in part to avoid getting “stuck in the weeds” of determining how OPI should settle whether they’ve met certain goals. HOSA Vice Chair Kali Wicks followed up by arguing that the organizations have had difficulty with scoring and adequate funding in the past.

“We have had issues getting information on how the scoring has been done,” Wicks said. “We have had instances where folks have not gotten the proper funding [and] that has been acknowledged based on some accidental errors. We just felt that this is the way to go at this point.”

The House Appropriations Committee will take action on HB 382 at a later date, at which point it will pass to the House floor for a final vote pending transmittal to the Senate.

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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...