Throughout the year leading up to the 2023 Legislature, lawmakers offered a tantalizing glimpse of changes ahead for public education in Montana, gathering for a series of day-long conversations about the challenges facing K-12 schools, their students and their staff.
Those meetings manifested in the opening weeks of January as a largely bipartisan push to bolster early childhood literacy, promote and fund career-based learning opportunities, and improve conditions for educators and students in the state’s public school system. Republicans and Democrats introduced a raft of proposed changes, bolstered by input from hundreds of constituents, culminating in what Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton characterized as among the most significant sessions of the past three decades in terms of the scope of adopted change.
Parallel to this collaborative, interim-inspired work, lawmakers engaged in a flurry of intense debates on topics that have increasingly sowed division across the country. They argued about bullies, disputed the boundaries of human sexuality instruction and clashed over LGBTQ-themed books in school classrooms and libraries. Even into its final days, the Legislature struggled to decide between two separate charter school proposals, ultimately forwarding both to Gov. Greg Gianforte for him to sort out. The more heated moments for education policy often overlapped with a larger ideological disagreement between the two parties on the issue of transgender identity — one of the most defining aspects of the 2023 session.
With several key education bills already signed into law, and many more awaiting Gianforte’s signature or veto, Melton told Montana Free Press this month that the state’s education system is in for a “fast and furious” year or two ahead. Here’s a look at the major themes and bills poised to drive that fevered pace.
Coming into the session, lawmakers involved in the interim discussions on education policy had identified four key improvement areas to help guide their efforts. That list started with early childhood education, a priority that quickly manifested in a bill to bolster student reading proficiency. Standardized test scores in Montana have continued to show a downward trend in student performance in core subject areas, with fewer than half of elementary and high school students statewide testing as proficient in math and English.
House Bill 352, sponsored by Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, which passed with bipartisan support and is now before Gianforte, was designed to help schools identify children under the age of 5 who are likely to struggle reading at grade level and to ensure those children have access to additional instruction.
Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, headed the Legislature’s education budget committee and was heavily involved in the interim meetings. He pointed to HB 352 as one of several proposals resulting from lawmaker and stakeholder collaboration, a bill with “significant accountability measures” that was “targeted toward the kids who need it most.” It also creates a new role for the state’s Board of Public Education, directing its members to develop a method for identifying children who struggle with reading in their earliest years and to work with locally elected trustees and the Office of Public Instruction to assess the bill’s long-term effectiveness.
“When the dust settles here,” Bedey said this week, “that’s going to be one of the most significant pieces of legislation we have.”
As their second policy target, legislators set out to make proficiency the guiding principle in gauging student achievement — a goal that became the backbone of Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula. The proposal, which was signed into law May 1, establishes that a student’s performance is measured by their comprehension of the instructional material in front of them, not by how much time they spend in their seats. Montana currently offers grants to school districts to support initiatives that could bolster student performance, and as O’Brien explained to MTFP, SB 8 ensures the funding is based on the most reliable evidence of student success.
“Seat time is not the solution to improving learning for our students. We can do better for our students and we can do better for our teachers,” O’Brien said. “That all learners are unique and different and learn in different ways and on a different timeline is something that teachers have known forever, and our public school system, with its limited financial support, has been challenged to do anything about.”
Another focus identified by lawmakers this session — career and technical education — inspired a steady string of bills that have all advanced to Gianforte’s desk. Chief among them was House Bill 257, a proposal from Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, to enhance state support for local STEM and career-based education. Since 2019, OPI has helped school districts cover the costs of such undertakings through the Advanced Opportunities program, and according to Melton, HB 257 will increase that program’s funding by 60%. The bill also raises the total amount of funding that’s earmarked to offset out-of-pocket expenses for the parents of participating students.
In addition to HB 257, legislators passed a bill establishing certification requirements for career coaches in public schools, and another increasing state aid to seven organizations that connect students with apprenticeships, industry conferences and other skill- and career-building resources. They also added language to state law noting the Legislature’s support for financial literacy instruction, a subject that Montana’s Board of Public Education approved as a new graduation requirement for students this spring. McCall Flynn, the board’s executive director, told MTFP that that addition is “a huge deal.”
“That now provides a nod basically to the importance of financial literacy in statute under legislative goals,” Flynn said.
Lawmakers also sought to improve teacher recruitment and retention in Montana. While the country grapples with a shortage of qualified educators, the situation has become especially pronounced here, with teacher salaries slipping to the lowest in the nation and public schools employing a rising number of retirees and non-licensed teachers to fill gaps in classrooms.
One early success story came with the mid-April signing of House Bill 117, a proposal from Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Montana City, to make it easier for retired teachers to return to the workforce as needed without risking their pensions. Another, O’Brien’s Senate Bill 70, expanded the eligibility requirements for state-funded student loan assistance to starting teachers. Gianforte signed that bill into law on April 24.
Still hovering on the governor’s desk is House Bill 588, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. The Legislature established a program in 2021 incentivizing local school districts to increase salaries for teachers in their first three years, and HB 588 would extend those incentives to include educators with provisional licenses who are working toward full certification.
During the 2021-22 interim, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took a hard look at the “case for change” in K-12 education. Now those conversations are manifesting in proposals that could mean major change for Montana’s public school students and teachers.
State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen highlighted teacher pay as one of the most talked about subjects during her string of community engagement tours in December and March. In an email response to MTFP, her communications director, Brian O’Leary, said Arntzen was “grateful” to see lawmakers address that concern alongside other community priorities, including personalized learning, sex education and student mental health support.
Whether those enhancements will impact recruitment and retention in Montana remains an open question. And Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents the vast majority of public school employees, cautioned MTFP that while good laws may have been passed, legislators didn’t necessarily increase their financial contributions accordingly. For example, she noted that SB 70 initially would have allowed more funding for loan assistance if needed, but that line was amended out.
“They passed the policy,” she said, “but they didn’t fund it.”
School choice and parent concern
During her session-closing speech to the House floor last week, Majority Leader Sue Vinton ran through a list of GOP accomplishments this session, among them a considerable advancement in the realm of school choice. Vinton, a Republican from Billings, was referring to a pair of bills she carried, both of which are now awaiting action from Gianforte.
“I am proud of the efforts we made to provide freedom in educational choices for Montana families and students while fully funding public schools,” Vinton said.
The first of Vinton’s bills, House Bill 393, would establish a new form of “savings account” accessible to the parents of students with special needs. The accounts were engineered to reimburse parents for the cost of tutoring and other educational resources outside the public school system, and would be funded by redirecting per-pupil state payments from individual districts back to OPI. HB 393 reflects a broader belief among school choice advocates on the political right that taxpayer money should follow an individual student to the educational opportunity that’s best for them. Meanwhile, critics have balked at the suggestion that public school funding be redirected to non-public entities.
A similar debate played out over Vinton’s House Bill 562, one of two charter school proposals now on the governor’s desk. The schools set up under HB 562 would not be subject to existing curriculum and educator licensing standards for Montana’s public schools, and would be governed by boards elected by the charter’s parents and staff. The proposal is a stark contrast to House Bill 549, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, and supported by Democrats and most of the state’s major public education associations. Anderson’s pitch applies current public school regulations to newly established charter schools, places those institutions under the oversight of existing school boards, and prohibits charters in Montana’s smallest school districts.
Bedey said that while he supports competition in education, he believes the vast majority of rural students will continue to be educated in public schools and that both charter school bills raise questions about constitutionality.
“That will certainly be tested in the courts,” he added, echoing a prediction several senators made during a late-session floor debate just prior to both bills passing.
Legislators also debated human sexuality in public education, with mixed results. House Bill 234, sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, became a flashpoint for conservative criticism over specific books, many of which contain transgender characters and themes or references to sexual activity. It also stoked concern that its changes to Montana’s obscenity law might expose school teachers and librarians to criminal charges for materials some people might deem objectionable.
An amendment softened that approach, bringing the bill more in line with existing law barring the dissemination of obscene material to minors, and HB 234 became law on May 10. Several weeks prior, a similarly divisive bill allowing students to protect themselves from physical bullying was also signed into law. But House Bill 566, the sole surviving proposal on sex education in the session’s final days, quietly died after disagreement over its inclusion of gender identity and reproductive rights in Montana’s definition of human sexuality instruction.
O’Leary wrote that Arntzen, who supported HB 234 and hosted a “celebration” of parental rights in the Capitol in January, felt the Legislature’s focus on parental rights and classroom content was the biggest departure from past sessions.
“There was more floor discussions on ‘what’ is being taught in the classroom, such as financial literacy,” he wrote. “The superintendent was very pleased to see education and families at the forefront of this session.”
Lawmakers did pass one proposal that spoke directly to the concerns of the self-styled parental rights movement. House Bill 676, now on Gianforte’s desk, would enshrine a list of specific parental rights into state law that include excusing a child from school for religious purposes and prohibiting school employees from encouraging a student to withhold information from their parents that’s “relevant to the physical, emotional or mental health of a child.”
The 2023 Legislature also toyed with some of the pursestrings associated with the public school system, redirecting revenue streams and injecting millions into a cash reserve dedicated to improving school infrastructure across the state. Lawmakers put new limits on a tax credit program designed to bolster public school budgets with private donations, a move meant to alleviate recent frustrations about the inequitable distribution of those dollars to districts in wealthier communities. And they sought to increase accountability in how OPI spends $13.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds earmarked to upgrade the agency’s data systems, granting additional oversight of the spending to the Department of Administration.
Arguably one of the biggest education bills of the session fell neatly into this category as well: House Bill 332, sponsored by Bedey, which would invest $40 million in the creation of a statewide health insurance trust for local school districts. The bill initially included another $20 million to incentive enrollment in the new trust, giving participating districts an initial influx of cash to help cover the cost of employee coverage. That money was gradually stripped out in the House and Senate.
“That one was much more difficult to get across the finish line than I thought it was going to be,” Bedey said of the bill. “I knew there would be a challenge to it because it was a pretty big price tag to it. But early on we had some unanticipated Democrat opposition to that, which was baffling to me. But we eventually overcame that.”
Melton said he considers HB 332 — the fate of which now falls to Gianforte — a significant step for public education that was 40 years in the making. Curtis concurs, noting that the bill would drive down the local cost of benefits for Montana educators. But despite that potential gain, Curtis added that based on the emails she’s received, MFPE’s members aren’t walking away from the 2023 session unscathed. The final month saw considerable messaging from lawmakers on chamber floors inspired by national culture war controversies, she said, including unfounded accusations of educators exposing their students to questionable or inappropriate lessons.
“They feel really offended right now,” Curtis said. “They feel hurt, and they’re questioning whether they stay in the profession because they clearly are not respected by the Legislature.”
This story was updated May 12, 2023, to correct the description of House Bill 535, which was amended in the Senate to make financial literacy instruction a legislative goal in public education.
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