By SARAH COOKE/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The state's next superintendent of public instruction will face a host of pressing education issues soon after the November election, the most urgent being a possible overhaul of Montana's school funding system. So much for any honeymoon.
The formula used by the state to pay for school construction and maintenance was thrown out in April by a district judge, who called it unconstitutional.
Although the state Supreme Court is reviewing that ruling, many believe it will be upheld, leaving the Legislature to craft a new formula.
Democratic incumbent Linda McCulloch and her Republican opponent, Bob Anderson, are quick to identify school funding as a priority, but they differ in how best to address it.
McCulloch, a former teacher and state lawmaker, said more than $150 million is likely needed to fund Montana's public education system. She also believes an interim committee should be charged with crafting a new school funding formula if the District Court ruling is upheld.
Under the lower court's decision, a new funding system must be developed by Oct. 1, 2005.
McCulloch, 49, has drafted several funding proposals, but left them open-ended ''so the Legislature can work with whatever is handed down.''
''This should be all of our decision, not just one person sitting at a desk,'' she said.
Also a former legislator, Anderson believes the issue is too large to be decided by the 2005 Legislature and has proposed convening a special legislative session on the issue.
He wants to add $40 million to the governor's budget to fund schools in the meantime, using money from a projected budget surplus.
''Along with this issue, there also begs to be some decisions made about what our revenue sources are going to be,'' he said. ''I think we have to find some revenue source that's pretty steady, based upon who the ideal payers of that tax might be.''
Both candidates agree lawmakers will still be forced to sort through accreditation standards and other benchmarks in determining what constitutes a quality education in Montana.
Another pressing issue will be compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind education reforms. Passed in 2001, the law requires students nationwide to be proficient in reading, writing and math by 2014.
McCulloch has been a vocal critic of the reforms, and last year challenged provisions that vastly increased training standards for many teachers in Montana's rural schools. She called the standards unrealistic, especially in smaller districts where teachers often are responsible for more than one subject.
''It's important to continue a dialogue with the federal government on how this should be implemented. ... The funding has increased but not to a level where we can take care of every situation,'' McCulloch said.
A report earlier this year cited Montana as one of just two states not on track to meeting most key No Child requirements.
McCulloch called the report flawed and inaccurate, but Anderson said he's troubled by Montana's poor track record.
''It bothers me that we are dragging our feet on No Child because it's an accountability model,'' said Anderson, superintendent and principal at Fort Benton schools. ''I don't have any doubts our students will measure up and measure much higher than students from other states.''
Anderson, 61, said his school district has benefited from changes under No Child Left Behind. Preschool, for example, is now a priority and more teacher training is required, he said.
Both candidates also trumpeted better education for American Indians, statewide health insurance for education staff and better teacher pay as priorities, and McCulloch stressed reading as another important area of improvement.
On the Net:
Office of Public Instruction: http://www.opi.state.mt.us