by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe (D-Great Falls) Sen. Moe can be reached at email@example.com Follow her on Twitter @MaryMoeMT
As August ended, so did the work of Montana’s first School Funding Commission, tasked with studying the state’s funding for public education, identifying inadequacies, and proposing solutions.
The Commission was a 2015 tweak to a 2005 law created in the wake of Columbia Falls Elementary vs. State of Montana I, when the courts found that the legislature was not adequately – and therefore not constitutionally – funding Montana’s public schools. After creating various fixes for that problem, the 2005 legislature mandated a study of the adequacy of school funding every ten years, in the hope of avoiding future lawsuits.
The 2015 tweak clarified that the mandated study would be conducted by a commission comprised of 12 legislators and 4 public members. I was one of the Democratic senators on the commission.
During the course of our meetings, I became increasingly concerned that we were focused far more on bill drafts than on a report of our findings. When we finally turned to the report, I became even more concerned that we seemed to be shying away from any statement about the overall adequacy and equity of the state’s current approach to school funding.
I wasn’t the only one. At its June meeting, the Legislative Finance Committee formally requested that such a statement be made in our report. So at our penultimate meeting, I persisted in raising the question of overall adequacy. Well, we haven’t really studied that, I was told. Do we really need to? I countered. Even in the areas we’ve studied, the phrase “it’s all we can do” has become a tiresome refrain. Don’t we have a constitutional obligation to address overall inadequacy – or at least acknowledge it exists?
Ah, but that constitutional goal is just aspirational, I was told. We’re not really expected to reach it. Profoundly disagreeing, I asked for the latitude to create a dissenting perspective on that subject. It was granted.
In the end, though, the majority of the commission was still averse to stating the obvious about the overall inadequacy of the state’s effort to fund public education. Not only that, they wouldn’t allow the minority opinion to be appended to the commission’s report. Gotta love the optics when the majority formally squelches the minority voice.
But the following facts are – well, facts. You tell me what they add up to:
- Facilities. State-supported debt service for facilities bonds was 25.3% in 2006; today it’s 6.08%. The state’s grant program to help districts with major maintenance can only address the needs of a prioritized few. Although the commission’s solutions mitigate these inadequacies, they don’t eliminate them.
- Special Education. Special education costs have more than tripled since 1990. Back then, the state paid 81.66% of special education expenditures; local districts paid 7.09%. Today, the state assumes less than half that percentage, while local districts’ share has increased nearly six-fold, forcing them to rely on general funds for special needs. The Columbia Falls Elementary II court was concerned about this cost-shifting in 2008. The steps the commission has taken haven’t materially changed it.
- 19-Year-Olds in Need. Montana is the only state that doesn’t continue education services for 19-year-old special needs students until they can transition to state services when they’re 21. As a result, these students regress academically, socially, and psychologically after high school, sometimes irreparably, and draw more heavily on public assistance as adults than they otherwise would. The commission left this neglect in place.
- High-ability Students. In 2008, the court was impressed with the 2007 legislature’s infusion of $1.25 million annually into gifted education. That level was never reached again. The commission has proposed to restore it, but nobody identified a funding source.
- Recruitment and Retention of Teachers. With teacher shortages now a problem statewide, it’s essential to both adequacy and equity to create the conditions that ensure all Montana kids have appropriately qualified teachers. A number of factors come into play when recruiting and retaining teachers, so a multi-faceted solution is needed. The commission chose only to refine the loan repayment program, a program that hasn’t shown impressive results in the past. Moreover, because of the costs of this refinement, the program will have to narrow the number of qualifying districts to prioritize a narrow set of isolated school districts. The districts serving the vast majority of Montana students will be left to their own devices.
Don’t get me wrong. The commission’s proposals will help. But the refusal of the first decennial commission to take a long look back and a longer look forward was a mistake. Buying a few mops when the roof is leaking is what ran us afoul of the constitution in the first place. Old habits die hard, I guess.