By Ron VandenBoom
The only bill currently being considered by the 57th Legislature that holds out the promise of finding solutions to future funding woes for K-12 education has gone through a metamorphosis in the Senate Education Committee that disappoints its sponsor.
HB-625 has become a whole new bill according to sponsor, Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre.
"Everybody that had a failed education bill wanted to put something into it," Musgrove said. "They added territory transfers (between districts) and criteria-based testing."
He also described it as no longer his bill, but the governor's bill.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, put it more simply when he said, "The Senate Education Committee struck everything after the be it enacted' clause and created a new program."
Also changed is the amount of funding for the bill which declined from a requested $50,000 to $20,000 an amount that both Musgrove and Jergeson said they believe is insufficient to provide a valid study.
HB-625 originally called for an interim study commission composed of appointees from the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) the Governor's Office, Board of Public Education, various education associations, and both houses of the legislature representing each political party. Its goal was to study educational funding, teacher shortages and salaries, and other financial aspects of K-12 education. It would then prepare a report for the 2003 Legislature.
The amended bill still requires a study of K-12 funding, but eliminates the bipartisan commission. It requires instead that the governor and the superintendent of public instruction conduct a study and then hold hearings on their findings. A report will then be submitted to the Education Interim Committee. If appropriate, legislation will then be prepared for consideration by the Legislature.
The bill also calls for study of criterion-based student testing and territory transfers between districts. Also included in the bill is a requirement to study the future role of distance learning, provide an analysis of the viability of reducing the number of districts and suggest ways to provide more accountability.
"I feel (HB) 625 is really more the governor's bill now than mine," Musgrove said.
Musgrove said he hopes legislators strip criteria-based testing out of the bill because that is an unfunded mandate that he doesn't believe has any place in the study. He said he doesn't think, though, that it's a bad idea that the governor has been included in the process.
The bill will go to a joint committee that Musgrove said will likely include himself, Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, and Joe McKenney, R-Great Falls, both supporters of the original bill. He is optimistic the bill will survive in something closer to its original form.
Assessments by Musgrove, Jergeson, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, concerning the current state of K-12 funding have become less than optimistic this week as one funding scheme after another falls to the wayside.
"We're a little over 1.5 and 1.5 percent (increase each year of the biennium)," Tester said. "I'm leery that there is going to be any more funding for education than that."
Tester said he is convinced that the Republican majority doesn't want any more funding for K-12 than $40 million.
Currently, the increase stands at about $31 million with less than two weeks remaining in the session.