The House Education Committee reconvened Friday to reconsider a “curriculum transparency” bill it voted to table earlier in the week. The last-minute hearing, which Rep. Eric Matthews, D-Bozeman, said was scheduled midday Thursday, generated frustration among Democratic members.

The Montana Legislature’s House Education Committee reconvened Friday to revisit a bill it had tabled earlier in the week, one that would establish new public access requirements for curricular materials in K-12 schools and add a definition for “critical theory instruction” to state law.

The committee’s last regularly scheduled hearing ahead of next week’s transmittal deadline for funding bills took place Wednesday, at which point members voted 8-5 to table House Bill 837, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade. Democrats on the committee voiced several reservations about the measure, including its proposed handling of student opt-in and opt-out policies for certain subjects such as critical theory and human sexuality. Vice Chair Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, shared that particular concern.

“As a school principal, this would drive me crazy,” Reksten said ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, expresses frustration to fellow members of the House Education Committee Friday about a last-minute hearing convened to reconsider a “curriculum transparency” bill the committee tabled earlier in the week.

The reasons behind Friday’s reconsideration of the bill are unclear. Attempts to contact the committee’s chair, Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, by email and phone were unsuccessful Friday afternoon. Asked to what extent House Republican leadership was involved in the decision, spokesperson Madison Atkinson issued the following statement via email: 

“HB 837 was a good bill with the intent to give parents more transparency in what their children are being taught in our Montana classrooms. House leadership still hopes HB 837 can make it into law this session or next.”

As the House Education Committee began its discussion, Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula, speculated that the hearing was convened for “purely political reasons.” He noted that the committee was meeting outside its usual time and not in its usual room, and that the meeting was posted with less than 24 hours notice and with no agenda.

“I don’t know that that’s fair to the public, but here we are,” Thane said. “I believe we’re here today not because members of this committee have changed their perspective or their viewpoint in the last 48 hours. Quite honestly, I think the elephant in the room is that individuals outside this committee disagreed with the outcome of one of our votes, didn’t respect the expressed will of this committee, and so we reconvene.”

Speaking with Montana Free Press Friday, committee member Rep. Eric Matthews, D-Bozeman, echoed Thane’s assessment, noting that this was the second time this session the House Education Committee has been called into an “emergency meeting.” The first, Matthews said, occurred just prior to the March transmittal break and involved reconsideration of House Bill 535, a proposal to define financial literacy instruction in state law. The bill had been tabled on a 9-4 vote, but passed the committee’s second vote on party lines and is now before the Senate.

“It felt like the system got manipulated there, just like it felt like it was getting manipulated here,” Matthews said.

 “I think the elephant in the room is that individuals outside this committee disagreed with the outcome of one of our votes, didn’t respect the expressed will of this committee, and so we reconvene.”

Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula

Among the additions to Montana education law proposed in HB 837 is a mandate granting parents access to a list of student records including test scores, student email accounts, counseling records and behavioral reports. The bill also seeks to establish a written complaint process for parents, and would require students to opt in to lessons that meet its definition of “critical theory instruction,” while maintaining Montana’s existing opt-out policy for human sexuality. HB 837’s list of qualifying criteria for critical theory instruction includes any lessons promoting the concept that “the United States or the state of Montana is fundamentally, inherently, or irredeemably racist, sexist, oppressive, or discriminatory.” 

The language of the bill is nearly identical to a proposal introduced this year in the Mississippi Legislature, also under the title “Transparency in Education Act.” Hinkle did not respond to an email request for comment Friday regarding the origin of that language. He proposed an amendment adding a definition for “identity instruction” to include “the topics of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or gender roles or stereotypes.”

While the committee adopted that amendment Friday along with another designed to address administrative concerns, the majority of members remained unswayed. After an initial vote to table the bill a second time failed, the committee voted 7-6 against passing it on to the House floor. 

Just prior to the House adjourning Friday, Hinkle made a motion to blast HB 837 directly to the floor for a vote. House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, supported the move, but Thane and Anderson rose against it, with the latter arguing that the bill had been “well vetted” in committee. Hinkle’s motion failed 43-52.

This story was updated March 31, 2023, to include the post-publication blast motion described in the last paragraph.

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