Education Policy Covered By Legislators During Session
Education quickly emerged as one of the leading issues in the 2023 Montana Legislature. Republicans have put up a package of bills targeting major reforms within the K-12 public school system, and Democrats are pursuing a heaping helping of policy changes of their own. A good number of proposals from both sides have garnered bipartisan support, while a series of measures from the Republican caucus’ right flank aims to expand school choice and restrict student access to potentially controversial material.
It’s a dizzying amount of legislation to keep track of. And that’s not even counting the school funding and higher education pitches lawmakers are continuing to debate. Now that the Legislature is at the halfway mark, here’s a look at what survived the transmittal deadline, along with a few high-profile proposals that failed to make the cut.
When it comes to tackling Montana’s ongoing teacher shortage, the issue of adequate pay has been at the forefront of the conversation. House Bill 588, sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, revisits a law passed in the 2021 session that established financial incentives for school districts that increase starting teacher salaries. This time around, Jones is proposing to expand the eligibility requirements for those incentives, allowing schools to qualify to implement raises for even more teaching positions.
HB 588 — part of a multibill education reform package introduced by House Republicans — didn’t debut until late February. But it immediately attracted strong support on both sides of the aisle, passing out of the House Education Committee and gaining approval on the House floor by unanimous votes. The bill is currently awaiting a post-transmittal hearing in House Appropriations.
A string of other bills are looking to tackle the retention question by enhancing how the state supports individuals in the teaching profession. Montana currently offers a three-year loan assistance program for beginning educators, with the annual assistance amount increasing for every year a participant remains at a school impacted by the teacher shortage. Senate Bill 70, sponsored by Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, proposes to widen that program’s eligibility requirements, making loan assistance available to a broader pool of new teachers. It passed the Senate in early February with strong bipartisan support and is waiting on its first reading in the House.
Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, has taken a similar approach with House Bill 445, which would establish a one-year statewide mentorship program for early career teachers and facilitate professional gatherings and development opportunities for teachers already in the field. The bill also proposes stipends for mentors and mentees. It hasn’t had a committee vote yet, but as an appropriations bill, HB 445 doesn’t have to advance from the House to the Senate until April 3.
At the district level, House Bill 117 aims to resolve ongoing issues faced by retired teachers returning to the workforce to aid with local staffing shortages. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Montana City, would revise rules governing the state’s Teacher Retirement System to allow retirees to work more hours without risking their pension benefits. It passed the House easily in late January but has yet to get a hearing in the Senate Education and Cultural Resource Committee.
One other district-level bill failed to make it out of the House during last week’s transmittal crunch. House Bill 633, sponsored by Rep. Eric Matthews, D-Bozeman, sought to increase the general funds of school districts in parts of Montana where housing costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Matthews argued that such an increase would enable impacted districts to direct more money to salaries to offset rising rental prices, and the pitch garnered support from enough Republicans to pass through committee. But that bipartisan buy-in failed to materialize on the House floor March 2 as HB 633 went down 35-65.
Lawmakers have also set their sights this session on what happens inside Montana classrooms, a debate that’s often sparked emotional testimony from teachers, LGBTQ students, parents and the conservative-leaning parental rights movement. Those divides played out recently over a series of proposals centered on human sexuality instruction in K-12 schools.
Two of those bills ultimately made it through the full House late last week. House Bill 566, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, seeks to clear up educator confusion about parental notification requirements stemming from a law passed last session. Anderson’s fix would widen the state’s mandated notification window and more clearly define what constitutes sex ed curriculum. But HB 566 butted heads with a separate proposal from Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, that initially proposed a penalty of “gross neglect of duty” for any teacher violating the law. Seekins-Crowe has since amended the penalty out of House Bill 502. Both bills cleared the House on March 3, HB 566 with bipartisan support, and HB 502 largely along party lines.
Not all the curriculum talk in the Capitol has centered on such socially divisive topics. House Bill 352, sponsored by Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, would enable local districts to provide services to children under age 5 who are likely to struggle with reading proficiency in their early school years. The underlying goal, according to Barker and other supporters, is to bolster student literacy by the time students reach third grade. HB 352 advanced out of the House Education Committee with only one opposing vote in early February but hasn’t been heard since. As an appropriations bill — with a roughly $1.6 million annual price tag attached — the bill wasn’t subject to the March 3 transmittal deadline.
House Bill 257 made its way to the Senate in late February with little resistance. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Courtnay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, increases the amount of money available through a statewide program that supports local development of STEM and career and technical education offerings. And a proposal from Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, got a strong bipartisan showing on the House floor as well. House Bill 338 would implement stricter accountability measures for districts when it comes to complying with the Montana Constitution’s guarantee that Indigenous history and culture are adequately represented in K-12 classrooms.
The Legislature’s focus on public school curriculum has at times raised questions about how far some lawmakers have proposed to go. House Bill 535, sponsored by Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, would add to state law a series of standards for financial literacy instruction in schools. The bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote last Friday, but not before Democrats voiced concern that the bill may infringe on the constitutional authority of the Board of Public Education and the Office of Public Instruction. Content standards are set or revised by those bodies through a multi-stage agency rulemaking process, and aren’t typically defined in law.
Republicans have once again expressed a thirst this session for expanding Montanans’ access to alternative educational options outside the traditional public K-12 system. Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, has led the charge on that particular issue with a trio of bills, starting with House Bill 408, which would raise the aggregate cap on state tax credits for private school scholarship donations to $5 million in the next fiscal year. The bill made it out of the House Appropriations Committee Feb. 23 on a 14-9 vote and is still awaiting a final vote on the House floor.
Vinton has also introduced a pitch to redirect state education funding to parents with special needs students. House Bill 393 seeks to set up a program at OPI to reimburse parents of students with disabilities for the cost of textbooks, tutoring and other educational resources outside the public school. Funding for the program would come from local districts, which would be required to remit roughly $6,800 to OPI for each participating student. HB 393 passed out of the House Education Committee on a party-line 9-4 vote Feb. 22. A third school choice proposal from Vinton, House Bill 562, would allow for the creation of so-called community choice schools in Montana at the request of parents and community groups. Those schools would not be subject to the state regulations applied to existing public schools, and oversight would fall to a new, autonomous statewide commission. HB 562 passed the House floor last Wednesday — the same day the chamber approved House Bill 549, a separate charter school initiative from Anderson authorizing such schools in the state. Unlike HB 562, Anderson’s proposal would place charter schools under the authority of existing public school regulations with direct oversight from the Board of Public Education.
At least one Republican- led bill is endeavoring to enhance educational choice within Montana’s public school system. House Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, attempts to make it easier for parents to enroll their children in schools outside the district in which they reside. If a parent opts to do so, HB 203 would shift the financial responsibility for that child’s education from the parent to the district of residence. The bill cleared the House in late January on a 96-1 vote.
Of course, Montana’s K-12 public schools wouldn’t exist without state dollars. And as the Legislature enters the second half of its deliberations, the education portion of the budget will become an increasingly prominent and pressing topic among lawmakers.
One major component of that conversation has actually already crossed the proverbial finish line. Last week, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 15 into law. The measure is largely a matter of routine these days, enabling the Legislature to adjust its education budget for the next two years by 3 percent to account for inflation. But the timing is key, in that HB 15’s swift passage gives local school districts a firmer sense of how much revenue to expect next year as they finalize their own budgets this spring.
A related bill didn’t fare quite so well. House Bill 514, sponsored by Romano, would have eliminated the 3% cap on that inflation adjustment. Before it was tabled in late February, Democrats on the House Education Committee argued that the bill could help districts address the rising cost of living in parts of the state, noting that the inflation rate nationally has gone up considerably more than 3% in the past two years. Republicans countered that the Legislature is already looking at other significant investments in public schools, and that removing the inflation cap could have unintended financial consequences down the road.
Two of the investments they referenced are also stalled in the legislative process, but have garnered widespread support from both sides of the aisle and from key stakeholders in the public education sector. The first is House Bill 332, a proposal from Bedey to direct $60 million in one-time funds toward the creation of a statewide health insurance trust for local schools.
Proponents have argued the bill would help districts combat the high cost of insurance for their employees and potentially free up money in their budgets, and it passed its initial vote on the House floor with broad support from Democrats and the Republican caucus’ more moderate middle. But when HB 332 appeared for a vote in the House Appropriations Committee Feb. 24, Democratic members sided with the Republican right flank to table it. The same fate befell House Bill 321, sponsored by Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, which would have topped off a $200 million state fund that generates money for major maintenance projects in K-12 public schools.
With roughly a month left before the transmittal cutoff for appropriations bills, though, neither HB 332 nor HB 321 are officially dead, and the debate over how best to fund public education in Montana is only warming up.