Gianforte’s policy director pushes education bill

HELENA – Gov. Greg Gianforte’s policy director asked legislators on Wednesday to pass a bill that would instruct high schools requiring a foreign language to offer computer programming as an alternative.

“For many of Montana’s students, computer coding might be a better option than foreign language,” said policy director Glenn Oppel. He said the governor is “passionate about IT and education,” and House Bill 185 would “provide choice for students.”

Members of the House Education committee didn’t debate the merits of the idea, although one described it as “compelling.” The Republican governor founded a software company and significant employer in Bozeman that sold in 2012 to tech giant Oracle for $1.8 billion.

The bill also instructs high schools to offer personal finance as part of their math offerings that meet graduation requirements.

In his argument, Oppel noted the 2016 U.S. News Stem Index said computer science jobs helped boost wages in the country. Just this week, a presenter at the 2021 Economic Outlook Seminar hosted by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research said the high-tech sector is growing nine times faster than the overall economy and pays twice the median wage.

Education officials opposed the bill. Opposition came from the Montana Public Education Center, comprised of six statewide organizations including the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana School Boards Association. Opponents said local trustees get to make decisions about how to best support students and set graduation standards.

A couple of lawmakers also said the “standard” way to pursue such a change would be through the Montana Board of Public Education, not the legislature.

At the hearing, Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, asked Oppel if the governor would present the request to the Board of Public Education instead: “That seems to be a more logical approach that doesn’t conflict with current administrative regulations.”

Oppel said he was certain the governor would be interested in doing so, but he didn’t believe it was necessary: “I think the legislature has the ability to set curriculum by law as far as I know.”

Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson

Reksten, former superintendent of schools, requested more information: “Do you have a reference to that law? Because I’m not aware of that law.”

Oppel responded by citing and reading part of Article X, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution, which states the Board of Public Education will “exercise general supervision over the Public School system and such other public educational institutions as may be assigned by law.”

“I think you illustrated my point, Mr. Oppel,” Reksten said. “I think that’s the best and fastest approach, is going through the state Board of Ed.”

In an email after the meeting, Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke declined to address whether the governor believes the Legislature has direct authority to set curriculum. She also declined to speak to whether the governor’s office would take the ideas in HB185 to the Board of Public Education. However, Stroyke reiterated Gianforte’s support for coding in education.

“Governor Gianforte supports adding software programming as an optional foreign language for high school graduation credit,” Stroyke said in an email.

Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, sponsored both HB185 and HB186, the latter which would allow any teacher “in good standing” in another state to be certified in Montana. HB186 also drew opposition and raised legal questions from education officials.

In separate reviews, the Montana Legislature’s legal analysts said both bills pose potential constitutional issues given the power of the Board of Public Education to oversee schools. The legislature also has taken up bills that seek to strip the Montana Board of Regents’ authority over higher education. In the case of HB186, the legal note said the Board of Public Education has the power to “prescribe policies for teacher and specialist certificates.”

Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls

“A specific direction mandating teachers and specialists certified in other states be granted reciprocity in Montana may raise a potential constitutional question as to whether this legislative direction conflicts with the Board’s exercise of general supervision over the public school system,” said the legal note.

McCall Flynn, executive director of the Board of Public Education, paraphrased the bill in her testimony: “HB 186 basically says that we should accept a teacher license from all other states, no questions asked.”

But she said requirements differ among states: Some require teachers pass a specific test, but some don’t; some call for high scores, but some don’t; and some require internships, but some don’t.

“Some states require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Some do not,” Flynn said.

She said the Board of Public Education already has “adopted flexibilities within teacher licensure” that maintain high quality in the classrooms. She argued any additional changes should similarly go through the board.

“HB186 seeks to supersede the Board of Public Education’s authority to adopt and set licensure standards,” Flynn said.

Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, wanted to know Flynn’s view of the standards in other states: “Are you of the opinion that other states have higher or lower teacher standards than we have here in Montana?”

McCall said she wouldn’t make an assumption about other states, but she knew the bar was high in Montana: “The Board of Public Education holds our students to a very high standard and thinks that they are the best of the best for teaching our children.”

In advocating for the bill, though, sponsor Rep. Kerns said the point of the HB186 is simple. He said Montana has a critical need for teachers, and many in good standing elsewhere would love to come here to teach.

“We should not have any barriers for them to do that,” Kerns said.