HELENA — A package of education bills dealing with issues from student mental health to enticing new teachers is moving through the Montana House of Representatives this week.
House Bill 143, one of the bills prioritized by Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget, would add incentives for school districts to increase starting teacher pay.
“Nothing dictatorial about this bill,” Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the bill’s sponsor said. “Just an incentive package to incentivize an increase in the beginning teacher pay, thus hopefully more folks will enter the teaching field, and those who do enter the teaching field will stay in Montana.”
Jones’ bill passed its first vote in the full House Monday with a 97-3 vote.
Later in the day day, the House Education Committee heard public comment on a bill dealing with school kids’ mental health, and another bill addressing what happens to special needs children after they turn 18.
House Bill 227 is sponsored by Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, and would start a pilot program to screen students for mental health issues. She said she has brought the same bill to the legislature four times.
Diane Fladmo spoke on behalf of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, and was joined by three other proponents.
“I know you have so many issues that come before you, but this literally is life and death,” Fladmo said.
Steven Pearce was the lone opponent to the bill and spoke on behalf of the Citizen Commission on Human Rights, an organization affiliated with the Church of Scientology.
The committee also heard testimony on House Bill 233, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, which would allow special needs students to graduate high school up to age 21.
Montana is the last state in the union that does not allow special needs children to stay in high school after age 18. Instead, they are put on a waiting list for adult disability services. There are currently 2,500 people receiving special needs services from the state, and 2,300 are on the waiting list, according to Beth Brenneman, an attorney with Disability Rights Montana, who spoke in support of the bill.
Proponents of the bill, like Sen. Chris Pope, D-Bozeman, said allowing kids just a few more years in school would help them thrive as adults with jobs and personal lives.
“House Bill 233 provides a golden key: a diploma that unlocks an active and participatory life,” Pope said, “a pathway to the workforce, earning a paycheck and otherwise optimizing the prospect of an active future participation in community life.”
Other proponents shared their own personal stories about their special needs children who under current law would be left without professional help for upward of three years after they turn 18.
Another education bill, House Bill 27, sponsored by Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, failed to pass its first vote in the full House Monday. The bill would have provided instructions for how school districts could create “handle-with-care” programs. Handle-with-care programs are a way for schools to identify children with extenuating circumstances, and allow those kids some extra care.
During floor debate, lawmakers who supported the bill said it was a good way to provide at-risk kids with a cushion to keep them from potentially falling further behind. Opposing representatives said the bill kept parents in the dark about what the school was doing with their kids, which they said would have negative consequences.
Columbus Republican Rep. Fiona Nave spoke to oppose the bill.
“And I’ll tell you what,” Nave said. “Every single time that the school leaves the parents out of the loop, bad things happen.”
Even though the bill failed on a 50-50 vote, Funk said she would continue advocating for handle with care programs after she terms out of the legislature this year.
“Absolutely, because … I heard about it [while] not being in the legislature,” Funk said.
She encouraged other lawmakers to bring the bill back next session.
James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.