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Big Year For School Choice In State

I’ve been struggling the past few weeks to land on a word that captures, without embellishment, the magnitude of change that 2023 brought to public education in Montana. And my mind keeps coming back to one: seismic.

It started last spring with a legislative session that education sources repeatedly characterized as unprecedented. I lost count of how many distinct bills I covered impacting the lives and daily routines of educators, students and parents. Some debuted without controversy, driven by a concerted bipartisan effort to reform aspects of Montana’s K-12 system. Others triggered fierce debate between the defenders of public education’s more progressive achievements and a newer breed of culture warrior who sees those advancements as antithetical to student well-being and their own worldview.

The result was a remarkably mixed bag of victories for both sides. School choice advocates witnessed the birth of not one but two new charter school laws — one they praised, and one they panned. The state’s leading education associations hailed the passage of a statewide health insurance trust for public schools, which they hope will help drive down costs for cash-strapped districts. Incentives to increase starting teacher pay got a boost, as did programs supporting loan assistance for teachers and STEM- and career- based opportunities for students. Lawmakers even approved their most successful bid at compromise to date on the question of state-funded pre-K, targeting their investment toward children struggling with early literacy.

See? Seismic. But policy tells only a piece of the story. For all the time I spent monitoring these changes and the array of lawsuits, new state commissions and local discussions they spawned, for me the most insightful moments of 2023 came in the field, on topics the Legislature considered only glancingly, if at all.

In classrooms and administrative offices along the Rocky Mountain Front this summer, educators spoke not about new licensing systems or mentorship programs, but about their struggles to make ends meet. The rising cost of housing, the lack of affordable childcare, the ever- burgeoning demands of a job that’s drawing increasing public scrutiny. Strolling the halls of Big Sky’s Ophir Elementary School, the district’s new armed marshal never once mentioned charter schools or new models for individualized student learning. Neither did the local parents, sitting together in a living room, their minds firmly fixed on the firearm that marshal was authorized to carry in the name of student safety.

That’s not to say those individuals don’t harbor the same concerns about state policies expressed by the hundreds of citizens who testified for or against them. But the past year has served as a critical reminder that the most pressing issues for teachers, for parents and for students may not be the issues playing out in the halls of the Montana Capitol. When I asked Dutton-Brady Schools Superintendent Jeremy Locke in August what has helped his district combat the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, his answers were singularly, and proudly, of local origin.

Locke’s assessment held up when I spoke with two of his latest hires. Their primary reason for relocating to Dutton- Brady from their former jobs in Fort Benton and Great Falls? The half-off rate they receive, as certified staff, at the district’s new in-school daycare center.

As we pivot into the new year, education is primed to become a major talking point. Candidates for statewide and legislative offices will doubtless refer to the political debates and policy changes of 2023 in their appeals to voters. But as my reporting over the past year has shown, ingenuity at the local level can often outpace and outmaneuver the loftier goals of high-level officials. It’s as important to watch one’s own backyard as it is to train an eye on the statehouse, because in the end, the most personal and compelling stories are those unfolding in local hallways and classrooms.

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