Research analyst Pad McCracken with the Legislative Services Division uses a homemade “conveyor belt” Tuesday to demonstrate for lawmakers the ways students progress in different education systems. McCracken’s presentation came during a series of interim legislative meetings this week exploring potential education policy goals in the 2025 Legislature. Credit: Courtesy MPAN

While the 2023 Legislature may have produced a series of bipartisan reforms to Montana’s public school system, state lawmakers signaled this week that their efforts to reshape education and address critical issues impacting teachers and students are far from over.

Throughout three days of meetings, members of two legislative committees dedicated to education policy and public school funding began the work of bridging the most recent session to the 2025 Legislature. For the most part, it appears that the policy discussion will continue to focus on a slate of issues already examined during the previous interim, as lawmakers seek to capitalize on the interest generated among agencies and elected officials with a constitutional hand in public education. Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton and chair of the Education Interim Budget Committee, told his colleagues that fostering continued collaboration among those “constitutional players” will be a top priority in the months ahead.  

“There was an awful lot of enthusiasm last session from the various other players outside the Legislature,” Bedey said, “and I suspect that there continues to be.”

The week’s proceedings included a set of grim statistics from the California-based Learning Policy Institute about Montana’s ongoing struggles with teacher pay and classroom vacancies. That presentation also noted that the number of college students enrolled in educator programs declined by nearly 2,000 in Montana over the past decade and cited the results of a 2021 survey in which starting teachers reported a lack of mentoring opportunities in their schools.

However, research analyst Pad McCracken with the Legislative Services Division pointed out that the 2023 Legislature tackled several of those issues head-on this spring, expanding a statewide incentive program for boosting teacher pay and establishing a teacher residency program that includes mentorship requirements. He added that determining the effectiveness of the new changes will take time.

“I think we’re just starting to be able to evaluate whether that’s moving the needle at all or not,” McCracken said. “In a lot of the data we get on this, there are lags of two or three years at times, so it may just be a little too quick to see if that is moving the needle.”

Lawmakers were also updated on the status of a new regional career coach initiative at the Office of Public Instruction, which Bedey predicted will land before the Legislature next session. Mary Heller, who heads the Montana Ready program, informed committee members that she recently filled the ninth and final coaching position and plans to use those coaches to collect data on district use of business partnerships and state-funded resources to promote career-based learning among students. OPI is funding the positions with one-time federal COVID-19 relief money, and Bedey said any data proving the program’s effectiveness will be critical in 2025 when he expects the agency will request state funding to continue its efforts. He added OPI will also have to demonstrate that it did not “duplicate” similar work by other state entities, including the Department of Labor and Industry and the Montana University System.

Perhaps the most telling forecast of the Legislature’s future policy debate came during a joint committee conversation Tuesday on the topic of proficiency-based learning. Montana has taken gradual steps toward prioritizing student comprehension of classroom material, most recently by clarifying in state law that student achievement is gauged not by advancement to the next grade level but by understanding the information in front of them. But McCracken noted that the conversation has been “churning in this state” for the past decade.

“The fatal flaw or maybe the outdated design of our system has to do with an age-based cohort, curriculum conveyor belt,” McCracken told members of both committees Tuesday. “Generally students move, march, in lock-step as they are dosed with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, along a year- or semester-designed curriculum conveyor belt … and they’re being assessed all along the way. But that assessment doesn’t stop the conveyor belt from moving on.”

“The fatal flaw or maybe the outdated design of our system has to do with an age-based cohort, curriculum conveyor belt,”

Pad McCracken, research analyst with the Legislative Services Division

What McCracken proceeded to describe, in outlining the dominant approach to education across America, was an assessment system that “sorts” students based on the speed at which they grasp certain material, with less proficient learners getting “lost” as the conveyor keeps moving forward from year to year. As McCracken spoke, he illustrated his explanation with a homemade wood conveyor, demonstrating how the current system moves students along in one age-based block, while a proficiency-based one would allow for greater individualization by “deemphasizing time and standardization and rigidity.”

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad and a member of the interim budget committee, chimed in to reflect on his own firsthand observations of proficiency-based systems in other parts of the world.

“It’s agnostic to school type,” Jones said, noting that the highest performers among public, private and charter schools alike globally have shifted their approach to education. “It simply puts the student in charge of their own learning.”

Jones further suggested that the joint committees carve out time during the interim for a field trip to the nearest example of such a school: Bishop Carroll High School, a public Catholic school in Calgary with a student population of roughly 1,350. Whether that trip comes together, and what specific policy proposals emerge from lawmakers’ continued examination of proficiency-based learning, will become clearer as the 2025 session grows closer. Here are a few more notes from this week’s meetings:

  • Lawmakers on the Education Interim Committee wrestled Monday with continued confusion over the status of public schools hosted on Hutterite colonies in Montana. Such schools are staffed and operated by public school districts, but geographically some reside within the boundaries of other districts, raising questions about where students are counted for per-pupil state funding. The 2023 Legislature sought to address the issue with the passage of House Bill 214, which stipulates that a district can only offer instruction at a site physically located in a separate district through a multidistrict agreement. Committee members voiced concern that two districts in eastern Montana had not yet drafted an agreement necessary for Riverview Elementary to continue operating. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen responded that she has no authority to force such an agreement but that the Office of Public Instruction was in active conversations with the parties involved. 

    “This is a local discussion, and first and foremost as state superintendent, we want to educate our children,” Arntzen said. “It’s just that it seems to be difficult in this arena.”
  • During a presentation to the interim budget committee Wednesday, OPI brought lawmakers up to speed on the $500 million it received in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Roughly $13.5 million of that funding was earmarked in the 2021 session for use updating OPI’s data systems, and Chief Financial Officer Jay Phillips informed the committee that OPI had successfully met a September spending deadline for that money by entering into a contract with Amazon and education software company PowerSchool. However, Bedey noted that three of the 12 positions associated with the project at OPI are currently unstaffed, and he asked if the agency was working to fill those vacancies. Phillips acknowledged that OPI is looking to recruit several of those positions but added that at least one is on a “temporary hold” due to budget constraints. 

    “You’re sitting with 25 vacancies right now,” Bedey said, referencing the agency’s overall vacancy rate. “Why would you have any difficulty with having funds available to have active recruitment for this essential position?”

    Phillips responded that it’s not about the number of vacancies themselves but the availability of funding at OPI to fill them, prompting Bedey to ask for additional information ahead of the committee’s next meeting regarding any financial pressures that are preventing the agency from filling necessary posts.
  • Wednesday’s proceedings also included a high-level discussion of a recent change to Montana’s “95 mills,” a portion of property tax revenues devoted to equalizing state funding between districts in wealthier and poorer areas of the state. The funds used to flow directly into the state General Fund, but lawmakers this year passed a bill splitting the 95 mills into a separate account. As McCracken explained, the new law also created a mechanism directing 55% of any additional revenue generated by the 95 mills toward local property tax relief.

    The Montana Association of Counties has argued that the 95-mill collections should be subject to the tax caps that apply to local government budgets, which would limit collection growth as property values rise. That position is opposed by public school representatives and Gov. Greg Gianforte, who argue cutting equalization funding would force school budget cuts or higher taxes on homeowners outside tax-rich districts.

    Legislative fiscal analyst Julia Pattin walked lawmakers through a series of projections of how such an approach would play out, demonstrating that capping the 95 mills may result in savings for some counties, but would likely increase local tax collections for teacher retirement funding in others. According to Pattin’s presentation, only one county — Madison — would see a tax reduction of 1% or more in fiscal year 2026 under those conditions.
  • Just prior to the budget committee breaking for lunch Wednesday, Bedey took a moment to deliver a stern message to Arntzen regarding her recent claim that she has evidence of litter boxes in Montana classrooms. Typically, Bedey said, he would have blown off the issue — one that has surfaced nationally amid conservative pushback against school policies supporting students who are exploring their gender identity, and that has been repeatedly debunked. But, Bedey continued, he felt compelled to address it after hearing an unnamed state senator repeat Arntzen’s allegations at a recent public meeting. So far the only supporting information Arntzen and OPI have presented are references to claims made to her or the agency by individual Montanans. Bedey said he remains unconvinced that “what people hear on talk radio shows constitutes substantiation of something that is so irritating to the public,” and proclaimed there’s “no excuse” for forcing school districts in Montana to “prove that they’re innocent.”

    “I implore the superintendent to find substantiation for these allegations and let us know and let the public know, because if there are school districts across the state that are accommodating children who want to identify as cats by putting cat litter boxes in the schools, the citizens of those districts ought to know that,” Bedey said. “But if there’s no substantiation, I strongly suggest that the superintendent put an end to this.”


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...