Bill to Increase Funding for Individualized Education Programs Moves to Governor’s Desk

House Bill 257, introduced by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, would bolster work-based learning, advanced courses and experimental education in Montana public schools

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

A bill introduced by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, that would increase funding for advanced opportunity programs in public schools will head to the governor’s desk after passing both chambers of the Montana Legislature with bipartisan support. If signed by the governor, House Bill 257 will allow school districts to access greater funding for experiential learning programs, an educational initiative that has taken root locally as the Flathead Valley has led the state in individualized education and work-based learning programs in recent years.

“This is designed to offset the out-of-pocket costs that a family or student would normally incur by pursuing opportunities in conjunction with the school, but outside of the brick and mortar,” Sprunger told the Beacon.

Under the bill, districts in Montana would receive increased state dollars to fund advanced opportunity and work-based learning programs, and would be required to spend 75% of those dollars offsetting costs for participating students.

Sprunger said that the funding is deliberately flexible, allowing schools to implement it in ways that best support the individual needs of students. In the past, advanced opportunity aid has been used to help pay for advanced placement and dual-enrollment courses, fees associated with work-based learning and internship programs, transportation costs for students commuting to out-of-school enrichment activities and exam fees for industry-recognized credential or license tests.

“It really is anything that would help the student pursue their interests,” Sprunger said.

House Bill 257 would raise advanced opportunity aid for elementary school districts from 3% to 4.5% of the district’s total quality educator payment, from 20% to 30% for high school districts, and from 8.5% to 18% for K-12 districts.

Sprunger emphasized the importance of the bill in light of both dire workforce needs in the Flathead Valley and growing experiential learning programs in local school districts.

Workforce shortages have impacted some of the valley’s most critical sectors, including healthcare and education, a reality Sprunger said she became familiar with during her seven-year stint as chair of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

“The struggle for workforce is very present in our Flathead Valley, and there were a lot of great-paying jobs I saw that were going unfilled,” the legislator said, describing advanced opportunity programs as a “head start” that students can use to jumpstart their careers and “to build a life in Kalispell.”

Kalispell School District 5 in recent years has led the state in advanced opportunity programs through a platform the district calls “transformational education.” An internship program spearheaded by Kalispell Director of Work Based Learning Mike Kelly has attracted over 50 participants who have been placed in local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies for a semester. Experiential learning programs in Kalispell have also extended to younger grades through the work of Kalispell Community Involvement Director Chau Young.

Kalispell’s transformational education programs garnered a visit from Governor Greg Gianforte earlier this month, who credited the district with standing at the cutting edge of advanced opportunity education trends.

“We need more innovation in education, and it’s going on here at Flathead,” Gianforte said during an April 5 visit to Flathead High School. “For student success, really Montana’s future depends on the work that you all are doing here.”

“It’s important to know that the Flathead Valley education system is taking advantage of these programs,” Sprunger said. “It’s taking advantage of career technical education, advanced opportunity dollars. And I think that School District 5 is leading the way.”

As House Bill 257 heads to the governor’s desk, Sprunger emphasized the work of educators and school administrators in creating advanced opportunity programs and advocating for funding increases.

“Our administrators and our teachers are the ones we should be holding up,” Sprunger said. “This was a full and wide team effort.”