The Montana Capitol building in Helena. Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

During the past two months, school administrators and elected trustees in Great Falls have pored over changes to 28 local policies governing the lives of students, teachers and parents. Some are minor tweaks. Others have required comprehensive rewrites or raised legal questions about federal guidance. But the bulk of the changes share a common wellspring: the 2023 Montana Legislature.

Similar efforts are playing out in districts throughout the state as local education leaders work to implement new state laws in their schools and classrooms. Lawmakers this spring passed a raft of statutory changes affecting Montana’s K-12 system. Now, as after any legislative session, it falls to individual districts to put those changes into practice by baking them into local policies and handbooks. As Great Falls Schools Superintendent Tom Moore put it, “For us, it’s just the beginning.”

“It had to have been a near-record number [of bills passed], at least in recent history,” Moore said of the 2023 session. “Many of those bills were germane or pertinent to public school administration and how we operate public schools. There was a lot of interest this round in addressing some issues, and our school district has a fairly well-entrenched method and process for dealing with policy change.”


Legislature tees up big changes for public schools

Public education was already primed to be a major focus for lawmakers heading into the 2023 session. When it all shook out, where exactly did the Legislature finally land on teacher retention, parental rights and improving educational opportunities for students?

According to Executive Director Rob Watson, the School Administrators of Montana tracked 169 education-related bills during the 2023 Legislature. Of those, Watson said, 96 stood to potentially impact local school policy in some way. In the wake of the session, the Montana School Boards Association quickly updated its 632-page model policy manual to incorporate new laws, providing districts with a template for implementing necessary changes of their own. MTSBA Executive Director Lance Melton said the organization updated 36 of its model policies this year — an increase from its usual post-session average of 30 updates.

Still, for some local education leaders, the volume of the changes this year seems significant compared to past legislatures. Scott McCulloch, chair of the Billings Public Schools board of trustees, used the word “gargantuan” to describe the policy update process he’s now overseeing. 

“The number of items that are coming down from Helena is staggering in a way for districts who have a variety of things already on their plate to deal with,” McCulloch said. “We want to make sure that educational achievement improves, we want to make sure that student safety is a priority. And now we need to throw into that mix dealing with all of the new legislative items, so there is a challenge for every school board in the state.”

While the actual number of updates recommended by MTSBA may not be dramatically higher than in past years, the issues driving those changes have proven weighty for state and local education leaders. A pair of new state laws — Senate Bill 518 and House Bill 676 — outline a collection of specific parental rights regarding childrens’ academic records, teacher and counselor evaluations, involvement in sex education and participation in student clubs. Two other bills addressing student self-defense and use of preferred pronouns stoked concerns during the session regarding how they would impact transgender students and school disciplinary practices.

For Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill, the common theme among many of those bills is a state mandate regarding how districts manage the rights and opportunities of LGBTQ students. Hill said many of the parental rights recently added to state law have “always existed” in local districts. But codifying them statewide raises new questions about how individual schools go about supporting students from marginalized groups and their parents.

“Let’s just say a parent says, ‘Yeah, I give consent for my child to use the pronouns that they prefer.’ That’s one of the laws, that you have to have parent consent for pronoun choice,” Hill said. “But then they passed a subsequent law that said you can’t be compelled to use that person’s pronouns. So as a parent, I give consent. But then as an individual who maybe is affected by that, I can’t be compelled to do that. It’s a really interesting mixed message to families.”

The situation has also raised questions about whether complying with certain state laws will put Montana schools in conflict with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in publicly funded educational settings. The application of Title IX to transgender students has been a moving target in recent years. President Joe Biden quickly reinstated those protections in 2021, which were initially extended to transgender youth by President Barack Obama but revoked by President Donald Trump. However, a federal judge in Tennessee last year temporarily blocked the Biden administration’s guidance in 20 states, including Montana — part of an ongoing lawsuit over state laws barring transgender athletes from participating on school teams that match their gender identity.

Casey Bertram, superintendent of Bozeman Public Schools, described the situation surrounding Title IX as “a messy hot-potato,” one that could put federal funding in jeopardy and expose schools to litigation. Cognizant of those risks, Bertram’s district and several others have opted to keep their policies and handbooks “silent” on the issue save for legal references to new state laws. The approach, as described by Bertram, Hill and Moore, will remain what it’s been for years: handling individual situations as they arise, with input from students, parents, teachers and legal experts.

“We are trying to take an approach working with families on all sides of the issue and trying to find some common ground or middle ground that will affirm the rights of all of our students and not inadvertently discriminate against a different group of students,” Bertram said. “That’s the tricky part that we are navigating on a case-by-case basis.”

Melton said the perception that this year’s updates are more significant than those of past years is partly a reflection of how extensive existing school policies throughout Montana already were. Many of the latest changes in MTSBA’s manual — 98 pages of updates, all told — replaced older references to federal laws with references to similar state statutes that now apply. Melton added that he’s “not trying to undercut the significance of the changes” stemming from global parental rights laws at the state level.

 “The number of items that are coming down from Helena is staggering in a way for districts who have a variety of things already on their plate to deal with.”

Scott McCulloch, chair of the Billings Public Schools board of trustees

“I actually think that in part it’s a measure of the fact that schools already have such an extensive array of policies that are designed to guarantee the right of parents to be involved in their child’s education,” Melton said. “When you have that much underlying, existing content, it’s actually longer than if you were writing it from scratch.”

Not all the changes local boards are wading through are controversial. Many deal with more routine aspects of the public education system, such as out-of-district enrollment, or constitute what Hill described as “positive things,” including new requirements for Indigenous cultural instruction and the sharing of trustee information with Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. A few updates trace back not to the 2023 Legislature but rather to a series of regulatory revisions by the Board of Public Education — among them the addition of a half-credit of financial literacy as a prerequisite for high school graduation.

“I don’t want to paint a picture that it’s all bad,” Hill said. “Sometimes it’s clarification that actually really helps.”

But in Billings, McCulloch said this year’s wave of policy updates has raised a broader question regarding the authority of nonpartisan local trustees to act in the best interests of their communities. A slice of what the Legislature passed this year reflected a particular partisan agenda, he continued, one that he doesn’t believe fully aligns with his views or those of his constituents. If there’s a growing sense that local control is limited, McCulloch said, might Montana start to see state-level influence over school textbooks similar to what Texas has experienced?

“I just find it disquieting on many levels that the concept of local control isn’t as strong as it used to be” McCulloch said.

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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...