Public education officials and advocates think there could be change in store for school rules coming out of Montana’s 2023 Legislative session.
“I think that adds to the anticipation this time,” said Bozeman Schools Superintendent Casey Bertram. “It feels like there are potentially significant changes in some of those bills. It’s whether they get traction in the Legislature or not.”
With less than a month in the books for the session, there are already a handful of bills that could have direct impacts to public education in the state at a time when more attention is on school rules.
“There’s a state and national conversation coming out of COVID around parents’ rights and school choice and charter schools. Those things have been there for multiple years, but it seems to be to a heightened degree this year,” Bertram said.
One of those bills that has drawn considerable attention early in the session is focused on open enrollment or allowing students to enroll in schools outside of their attendance boundary.
House Bill 203 would require districts to accept non-resident students, with the exception of a handful of specific circumstances including if the school could show it did not have room for the out-of-district student. Currently, criteria for non-resident enrollment are not outlined in state law.
The bill sponsor Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, told the House Education Committee earlier this month that it was designed to empower parents to make decisions on their children’s education and to ensure taxpayer money followed the student.
HB 203 has received the support of the Montana School Board Association, the School Administrators of Montana, the Montana Rural Education Association, the Montana Quality Education Coalition and the Montana Association of School Business Officials. It’s viewed by many as a moderate parent choice bill that would keep public dollars in public schools.
Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Board Association, said the bill has come a long way from when it was drafted, with MTSBA providing input.
For Bozeman School District, there’s some uncertainly on how it might be impacted by an open enrollment bill.
“It’s really hard to predict what would happen and who would go where. And so, the fiscal impacts of that bill, I think, are hard to predict,” Bertram said.
For example, there are around 66 students within Bozeman Elementary District attendance area who opt to attend Anderson School, which accepts non-resident students, according to Mike Waterman, the district’s executive director of business and operations.
“Under current law, Anderson School can choose whether or not they want to charge tuition for those students. If they do, that tuition bill is paid by the parents who are making the decision to put them there,” Waterman said.
If HB 203 were to pass into law, Anderson would have to accept the students and Bozeman taxpayers — not the parents — would pay the school tuition.
“So right now, those 66 students are attending Anderson at no cost to our local taxpayers. This bill would change that and force a cost upon our taxpayers that doesn’t currently exist,” Waterman said.
Generally, Bozeman Schools has opted not to accept students from outside the district, with its buildings historically filling up fast enough with resident students. Under HB 203, Bozeman’s school boundaries would open and it would be required to accept students from out of district.
“We didn’t want to be building additional facilities for students who didn’t live here and weren’t going to be paying for them,” Waterman said. “Things have changed a little bit and that could be beneficial to us right now given the budget issues and reduced enrollment.”
Rob Watson, executive director for the School Administrators of Montana, said there are already quite a few districts who accepts non-resident students. The first few years of implementation could be complicated as schools work out the new enrollment process, Watson said.
“It could be difficult to implement because you might have a family that comes in that has a second and a fourth grader and you might have room in the second grade but no room in the fourth grade,” he said. “I think all of those things will be complicated by this process but, just to be clear, other districts have had open enrolment in the past and have worked through some of those issues.”
One of the first bills that typically passes during a session is K-12 inflation spending. House Bill 15, also sponsored by Bedey, would set an inflation increase of 2.7% for the fiscal year 2024 and 3% for fiscal year 2025.
Montana state law puts the cap for inflation spending at 3%, with the inflation percentage calculated by using a three-year rolling average, according to Melton.
There are concerns the increases won’t match the financial crunch schools might be facing.
“There’s a gap between what that funding is going to be and what we know contemporary inflation is right now, which is about 6.5% and it was as high as 8.3%,” Melton said. “It’s definitely an important part of the puzzle but it’s not going to address all of the needs of schools in any way.”
That concern was echoed by Bozeman School District, with cost of living increases throughout the Gallatin Valley.
“We do know that recruitment and retention is a significant issue. It’s a priority for our administrative team and our board. We know costs are increasing around here and in order to retain quality staff we know we’re going to have to increase compensation,” Waterman said.
One bill targeting mill levy elections has raised concerns among public education advocates, including MTSBA and SAM. House Bill 206, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ron Marshall of Hamilton, would require mill levy elections to have a 50% registered voter turnout.
There’s presently no voter turnout requirement in state law.
While it does not directly target public education, it would impact school levies and how they go about getting funding.
“The Legislature has encouraged school districts to rely very heavily on the use of voted levies in order to provide a basic system of free, quality schools,” Melton said. “Managing to find a way to get 50% of your population of qualified electors to show up to vote is fairly difficult.”
During a hearing in the House State Administration Committee, HB 206 largely faced opposition during public comments.
There are a handful of drafted bills that haven’t been introduced yet, including one that would expand on the Teach Act from the previous session and one that would create a school health insurance trust, where schools could opt into the pool for lower health insurance costs.
Another, LC 1350, would offer programming and funding for schools to develop intervention strategies to help students read at grade level by the third grade.
“If there’s an early literacy or an early childhood bill that can help support what we’re doing on our own with the Bozeman Reads program, that would be exciting,” Bertram said, referring to the district’s own literacy program.
Organizations like the School Administrators of Montana and MTSBA have spent the last six months or so setting their legislative priorities and are working to keep school districts, board and central office staff informed.
“I would say the bills we’re seeing align pretty well with some of our priorities,” Watson said, adding they haven’t seen too much around recruitment and retention yet.
The work of tracking bills in the Legislature, anticipating potential changes and planning for upcoming May elections, isn’t necessarily a new feeling.
While MTSBA is tracking over 200 bills that could impact public education, Melton said that’s about average for a session and many of them won’t gain traction.
“Public education is a preoccupation of the Montana Legislature. It has been for a long time,” Melton said. “There are a variety of ideas in the Legislature among the legislators and different factions within the parties and the differences between the parties. I’ve been lobbying the Legislature on public education since ’97, and I’ve never had a relaxing session in my life.”