Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- Less than half of Montana’s students are reading at or above a proficient level for their grade, according to data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction. A bill that has passed the House of Representatives and is now in the Senate would try to help them catch up.

House Bill 352 would put reading intervention programs in place for students who need it. The programs would be optional for districts, but would give them more tools and money to teach kids how to read. 

Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, is the sponsor of the bill. He said the program would be mutually beneficial for parents, students and schools.  

“It provides great parental choice and there's a great business case to provide a big impact for a relatively small investment,” Barker said.  

There were four proponents of the bill who said it would be a smart, small and long-term investment in Montana’s kids and future. Sarah Piper represented the Montana Federation of Public Employees. She said HB 352 would help address Montana’s literacy issue before it gets worse and before kids grow up and get jobs.

“We represent the people that work with these students and know deeply how important it is to address literacy early on. And the way we see it, we can invest money early on in getting students up to speed on reading, or we can invest money later making sure they can because we need that for a successful workforce as they graduate,” Piper said.  

There weren’t any opponents of the bill at a hearing in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee Friday and the committee didn’t take immediate action. 

The program would cost the state’s general fund roughly $1.5 million dollars to run per year, according to the fiscal note. The House passed the bill in March on a vote of 77-22. 

Experts who analyze trends in education cite COVID as one of the main reasons Montana’s students are falling behind.