Education has been one of the most disrupted sectors by COVID-19. The ripple effects of school closures and remote learning have further put pressure on families and our economy. The Legislature responded by giving more flexibility to students, families, and educators to engage in individualized learning.
We began the session by providing local school boards with stability as they were beginning their annual budgeting process. House Bill 15, which provides an inflationary increase in school funding, was signed into law in February and is reflected in the education section of the state budget. In general, our state budget reflects strong support for K-12 and post-secondary public education. The budget also provided additional support for special needs students who have been even more disrupted by COVID than the general student population.
While we learned that remote education cannot replace in-person education, the last year has shown us that rigid curriculum and seat-time requirements do not necessarily reflect academic progress. We also saw that online learning can supplement in-person learning, which is why the broadband investments that the Legislature made are critical to the future of education, especially in our rural communities. Using the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, the Legislature appropriated $250 million into broadband and telecommunications projects for Montana.
House Bill 246 was a crucial bill to moving our state towards individualized learning. It replaces outdated seat-time and curriculum requirements by allowing districts to offer alternative academic progress measures. These include work-based learning, custom course design, distance learning, credit flexibility, and other methods of learning that reflect the individual education needs of families and students.
Other bills that complement House Bill 246 include Senate Bill 109, which requires public schools to offer gifted and talented programs, Senate Bill 22 to strengthen funding for career and technical student organizations, House Bill 252 which offers career and technical education employer tax credits, and House Bill 556 to allow alternative means of earning a high school diploma.
All of these expanded flexibilities for schools and families will strengthen our public education system. However, families should not be denied access to an education that meets their needs due to financial barriers. The Legislature also expanded opportunities for choice in education by making non-public education more attainable to low-income families.
House Bill 279 increased the tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations which in turn provide private school tuition scholarships to low- and middle-income families who otherwise might not be able to access a non-public school. House Bill 129 allows families to use education savings accounts for K-12 expenses as opposed to just college expenses.
Finally, we began addressing Montana’s teacher shortage by passing House Bill 143, which incentivizes increasing starting teacher pay. Teacher pay varies from district to district and is based upon local resources and union negotiations. However, the state has increased certain matching funds that districts can apply for to supplement starting teacher pay. Other legislation was also passed to strengthen “grow your own” models in Montana’s educator preparation programs within our colleges.
Next school year as we come out of COVID, Montana families, students, and educators will have more opportunities than ever to succeed.
Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, is the Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives; Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, is the Speaker Pro Tempore; Sue Vinton, R-Lockwood, is the Majority Leader.
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