OPI to Require Government and Financial Literacy Education for all Montana High School Students

The updated graduation requirements prompted praise from some educators, concerns over staffing and funding from others

By Denali Sagner
First day of school at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Board of Public Education (BPE) will support a proposal by the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to add a civics or government and a financial literacy or economics course to the current graduation requirements for Montana high school students.

The new requirements, which will carry the weight of half a unit toward graduation within the current 20-unit requirements, will be implemented through flexible guidelines at the local level. While educators in the Flathead Valley supported the addition of personal finance and civic education in schools, some expressed concerns over the impending mandate, which could further stretch district budgets and staff capacities amid a dire teacher shortage.

Graduation standards for Montana high school students are housed under Chapter 55 of Montana’s Administrative Rules, and currently require students to meet various English, math, science, social studies and career and technical education benchmarks, among other subjects. The addition of civics/government and financial literacy/economics will be implemented through a revision to Chapter 55.

“I am grateful that the Board of Public Education recognizes the importance (sic) role that financial literacy and civics have in preparing our Montana students for the future,” OPI Superintendent Elsie Arntzen stated in a Jan. 18 press release. “Financial literacy classes give our students the tools necessary for personal success beyond the classroom. Civics education prepares our students to be active participants in government as they become the next generation of leaders in our great state and our nation.”

Brad Holloway, principal of Glacier High School, said the added standards will be a smooth transition for the school. The Kalispell Public Schools have had a longstanding government requirement for graduation, and an additional personal finance requirement was recently added at a Jan. 24 school board meeting. Holloway said he does not anticipate needing to hire any new staff, as the district already employs educators qualified to teach personal finance courses.

Jon Konen, principal of Columbia Falls High School, who served on the Chapter 55 review team for the state, however, told the Beacon that while he supports the idea of the curriculum additions, the implementation of the new requirements seems difficult, if not impossible, for his school district.

“I really like the premise of it,” Konen said. “Personal finance is huge, and that’s something that a lot of states across the nation have made as a requirement.”

Still, the Columbia Falls principal called the change to Chapter 55 an “unfunded mandate,” and a shock to those involved in the committee that “came at the eleventh hour.”

Konen said the requirement will force Columbia Falls High School to add four to five class periods per day, likely requiring the district to hire another full-time teacher. Mirroring national trends, schools across the Flathead Valley have experienced acute teacher shortages in recent months, as educators have fled the profession since the onset of the pandemic and fewer young people have entered the field. There are over 400 vacancies listed on Montana Jobs-for-Teachers, a recruiting website run by OPI.    

Not only is it difficult to recruit and retain teachers as a whole, Konen said, but the addition of government and financial literacy classes will require hires who are qualified to teach these more specialized subjects. Even if the district is able to locate professionals to fill these roles, the new statewide requirement will not be accompanied by any sort of funding, leaving questions surrounding how the additional educators will be funded.

“It has some controversy attached to it that it may not have needed,” Konen said. “I would be all for it if it came with some funding, too.”