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Montana's educational leaders gather to review new laws, initiatives

Officials discuss teacher retention, charter schools and university enrollment, among other topics

State leaders from across Montana's K-12 and higher education systems convened on the University of Montana campus this week for a discussion on an array of new laws, regulations and initiatives approved throughout 2023.

As Dylan Klapmeier, education policy advisory to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, noted, the past 12 months have seen the realization of numerous goals set by Montana's Board of Education last December. Those advancements include a host of measures passed by the Montana Legislature to improve early childhood literacy, increase state funding for trade-based education and promote a more individualized approach to student learning. Other members of the board - comprised of the Board of Regents, Board of Public Education, Gianforte, Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian and state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen - took turns spotlighting their own individual accomplishments, from the adoption of new school quality standards at the K-12 level to the dramatic rise in students taking dual-credit courses for college credit.

Speaking to the latter, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs Joe Thiel said that during the 2022 school year, one-third of Montana's 9,310 high school graduates participated in dual enrollment. Of those, he added, 37% took college-level courses in career and technical education. As for how many of those students go on to enroll on Montana campuses after graduation, Thiel put the rate at between 40% and 60%.

"Not only are you more likely to come to college, but for some of these students, they have a year or two years of college under their belt, so they can finish [and] enter the workforce that much more quickly," Thiel said.

Participation has also increased in the Montana Digital Academy, a state program housed at UM's College of Education that offers online courses to students across Montana's public school system. Assistant Director Mike Agostinelli told board members that the academy saw a 42% increase in the number of students participating in advanced placement courses during the past year, along with a 97% increase among those participating in dual-credit courses. With the Legislature's passage last spring of House Bill 749, Agostinelli added, the academy intends to develop a suite of new offerings, including shorter courses, industry certifications and curriculum that school teachers can use in their own classrooms.

The remarks Friday served as the finale to a three-day flurry of meetings and joint sessions of Montana's highest echelon of state education officials. The Board of Public Education, Board of Regents and lawmakers from the Legislature's two interim education committees criss-crossed one another in Missoula throughout the week, approving various measures impacting Montana educators and students and fielding updates on recent legislative and regulatory changes to the state's K-12 and university systems. Here's a glimpse at some of the high points from those discussions:

• Board of Public Education member Jane Lee Hamman reported Wednesday that one of the 26 applications for new public charter schools under House Bill 549 had been rejected. Hamman explained that applicants seeking to establish the Yellowstone Experiential School in Livingston failed to submit their proposal to the Livingston Public School Board prior to requesting state approval - a foundational requirement outlined in the new law. The board will review the remaining 25 applications, all of which were submitted by public school districts, during an all-day meeting on Nov. 30.

At a joint meeting with the Legislature's Education Interim Committee Thursday, Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the volume of applications. However, board chair Tim Tharp acknowledged there has been "a little bit of consternation" over the fact that some of the charter proposals are built around pre-existing programs within certain school districts. Salomon said the intent of HB 549 was to "offer new programs, offer new concepts," not to provide additional state funding for educational programs that districts have already implemented. New legislation often has "unintended consequences," Salomon added, and "this may be one of those situations."

• Board members also voted unanimously Wednesday to sign onto a letter to the National Education Association - the nation's largest labor union - expressing concern that it shared "inaccurate and unauthentic information" about Indigenous people in trainings attended by Montana educators. The letter was drafted by the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education and signed by the Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents the bulk of public school teachers and staff in the state.

Council Chair Jordann Lankford-Forster mentioned several examples of information she and other educators found troubling, among them a "race literacy quiz" that included an inaccurate portrayal of Pocahontas. On Friday, the NEA informed Montana Free Press in an email that it had "immediately acknowledged the problem and have taken steps to ensure that this information is excluded from future printed and electronic materials." The organization also extended its "sincere apologies to anyone who may have been offended."

• On the higher education front, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar touted his campus' latest enrollment trends before the Board of Regents Thursday, noting that the fall retention rate among last year's freshmen - 76% - was the highest in UM's history. The focus on campus populations continued as Scott Lemmon, director of admissions and enrollment strategy for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, gave the regents an update on statewide figures mined from the university system's fall 2023 headcount. Lemmon described enrollment in recent years as "relatively flat," with overall declines in Montana's four-year campus population offset by increases at the two-year level. Lemmon stressed that Montana is "laser-focused" on in-state student recruitment and its ongoing efforts to increase the current 31% ratio of Montana high school graduates enrolling at Montana colleges. Those efforts include an online portal allowing Montana students to apply for admission to all in-state campuses, and Lemmon said his office is examining the possibility of a single all-campus form that can be pre-populated with an individual student's information, including information pertinent to financial aid opportunities.

Regent Loren Bough raised a series of questions about an apparent "phenomenon" in out-of-state student enrollment, noting that state data showed a dramatic uptick starting in the fall of 2021. Was this increase, Bough asked, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, or perhaps the surging popularity of Kevin Costner's Montana-centric television series Yellowstone?

"Funny as that is," Lemmon replied of the latter suggestion, "that does motivate people."

• Nationwide, enrollment in college-based educator preparation programs has dropped by nearly a third in recent years. That was the message Dan Lee, dean of UM's College of Education, led with Thursday afternoon in addressing the Education Interim Committee about teacher recruitment and retention in Montana. Lee and his counterparts from MSU and MSU-Billings - Tricia Seifert and Ann Beste-Guldborg, respectively - stressed to lawmakers that low pay and high living costs continue to drive some new teachers from their programs to other states. Best-Guldborg spoke of "burnout" among those in the profession resulting from behavioral issues among students and increased criticism from parents. Seifert confronted lawmakers with statistics illustrating that the cost of a new house in Bozeman is simply beyond the reach of starting teachers.

"The interest [in teaching] isn't there like it used to be," Lee said.

Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, attempted to address what he called the "elephant in the room, or the serpent under the table," arguing that parents have become concerned with a focus on classroom management skills over subject matter mastery. The statement received soft pushback from Beste-Guldborg, who cited her experience as a school principal in explaining that it's easier to improve a teacher's understanding of content than it is to teach a content specialist how to manage a room full of children. Her point was echoed by a panel of five current teaching candidates from the Missoula area. Asked by Fuller about their biggest personal weaknesses, all five spoke of challenges maintaining discipline in their classrooms. One of them, Nathan Stone, specifically mentioned the presence of cell phones as a particular classroom management issue.

"It was a battle I wasn't necessarily anticipating fighting," Stone told lawmakers, adding that the present "undercurrent of anti-intellectualism" in some communities has only served to further undermine the authority of teachers and school administrators.

• The issue of teacher recruitment and retention resurfaced Friday morning during a tense discussion among the Board of Public Education and lawmakers about increases to teacher licensing fees. The fee Montana charges educators applying for a new license or renewing an existing one has remained fixed at $6 for decades. But a recent change to state law redirecting revenue from those fees to the Office of Public Instruction triggered a broader debate this year over raising fee amounts in order to pay for ongoing maintenance of OPI's new licensing software. Arntzen remains firmly opposed to any fee increase, while Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, has continued to insist that an increase is necessary to bring teaching more in line with other licensed professions in the state.

The "stalemate," as Bedey referred to it Friday, came to a head as the Board of Public Education considered a proposal for a series of staggered increases based on the type of license an educator applies for - a proposal the board voted to approve. Under the new structure, the fee for a five-year standard teaching license would increase to $70, plus an additional $25 technology fee. While addressing the board, Bedey said the increases should be enough to meet the increased costs associated with OPI's new software, though he cast the situation as a challenge to Arntzen, stressing that the way to keep fees low is to reduce the cost of administering them.

The proposal adopted Friday came not from OPI but from the board itself. Prior to its vote, chair Tim Tharp asked for Bedey's input on whether the board should delay action until it could revisit the matter with Arntzen. Bedey left that decision up to the board but noted that Arntzen's recommendation would not have fully funded the system and that the board was well within its authority to adopt a fee structure that will.

"It is an uncomfortable position," Bedey said "I am flabbergasted that we find ourselves in the place that we are. But the point of the law was not to defund school licensure systems. It was to set fees commensurate with costs."

In an interview with MTFP, Arntzen expressed disappointment in the board's decision and reiterated her stance that "it's the wrong time right now to increase any kind of licensing fee for a teacher."


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