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Shifting gears with an education omnibus

HELENA — For Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, the issue of career-oriented education hits close to home. One of her daughters enrolled in a health careers course during her junior year of high school, getting a firsthand look at hospital-based care and receiving direct instruction from a medical professional. Bertoglio told Montana Free Press that the class, which concluded with students taking a certified nursing assistant test, gave her daughter an early and very specific leg up in the health care field.

“As a junior in high school, my daughter got her CNA license,” Bertoglio said.

The experience opened the door for some students to begin working at independent- and assisted-living facilities, and inspired her daughter to consider pursuing pre-med in college. It also made an impression on Bertoglio, who is now looking to bake similar educational opportunities into Montana law. Through House Bill 246, she’s proposing a swath of statutory changes that, as a parent and a school board trustee of nine years, she believes will enhance the ability of public schools to individualize education for students.

Several voices echoed that belief before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee Wednesday afternoon, including the governor’s office, the Montana Public Education Center and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. HB 246, which passed the House last month on a nearly unanimous vote, would grant local school boards considerable latitude in approving work-based and experiential learning options for students and waiving certain graduation requirements for individual students after consultation with teachers and parents. It would also streamline the licensing process for out-of-state educators looking to teach in Montana and establish a new Class 4C teaching license to allow people with a high school diploma and at least 10,000 hours in a particular trade to teach in their area of expertise.

Proponents have routinely pointed out that the bill is in part simply a codification of practices already contained in the Board of Public Education’s administrative rules. The board has not taken an official position on HB 246.

“Some of the flexibilities, like the flexibility for those with a nationally board-certified teaching credential to come to our state and and basically be issued an educator license, that is somewhat newer,” said BPE Executive Director McCall Flynn, who has testified on HB 246 as an informational witness. “But a lot of these flexibilities are already in use in school districts, and those looking to obtain licensure in our state are already using these.”

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said HB 246 is one of the most significant non-fiscal education proposals to materialize in the 2021 Legislature, and builds on successful efforts in past sessions aimed at off-site instruction and proficiency-based learning. Melton was involved in drafting the bill from the start, along with Bertoglio and several other Republican lawmakers who have direct insight into the work of school boards. The result is a proposal that Melton argues empowers boards to exercise local control in fostering “individual learning paths and career goals.”

“Schools need flexibility to be able to work in concert with their communities, with their students and with families in order to make sure effective learning occurs,” Melton said. “And that’s a big piece of this bill.”

The Legislature’s deliberations on education policy have centered around a number of different themes so far this session, and Bertoglio’s bill touches on nearly all of them. For starters, as Melton indicated, it reaffirms the state’s deference to local control in the public school system. HB 246 also puts a heavy emphasis on trade-based learning — mirroring at the K-12 level other policy efforts to prioritize or expand collegiate career and technical education. Under the bill, schools would have the option to grant students instructional credit for certain on-the-job learning, provided that learning is coordinated with and facilitated by a teacher to ensure students are meeting proficiency standards.

“Bottom line is that when the student’s out there with a trained technician learning the trade, identifying and developing skills, that’s worthy of including under the broad umbrella of learning,” Melton said.

The 4C teaching licenses established by HB 246 would address the work-based learning approach as well, enabling schools to tap into expertise available through local individuals and businesses. And according to Bertoglio, improving the career pipeline for high school students can help Montana continue to address a workforce shortage that state officials have bemoaned for years. Montana needs people to go into trades such as construction, she said, and broadening the path to those jobs should benefit not only the students who want to pursue them, but the communities that depend on that labor.

Melton likens it to independent study at the college level. If a student in rural Montana is interested in the automotive technician trade, for example, they could capitalize on a work-based learning partnership with a nearby dealership to advance that interest while also satisfying requirements for a high school diploma.

Another major topic addressed by HB 246 is the widespread concern about teacher recruitment and retention. Last week’s signing of the TEACH Act by Gov. Greg Gianforte marked a key milestone in that fight, securing $2.5 million to fund incentives for districts to raise their starting teacher pay. With the state poised to become more competitive on teacher salaries, HB 246 proposes to streamline the licensing process for teachers relocating to Montana. The bill doesn’t offer the blanket licensing reciprocity proposed in House Bill 186, a measure from Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, that has generated strong opposition from education stakeholders and has its first Senate committee hearing March 15. Instead, HB 246 allows the Board of Public Education to determine whether an educator licensed in another state or country has adequate experience to be licensed in Montana. HB 246 would also ease the process for teachers with a current certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“At the end of the day, it’s the Board of Public Ed looking at these teachers coming from out of state, looking at their certifications and their experience level,” Bertoglio said. “I think it’s just all in concert with trying to get teachers, retain teachers. I think that should be a goal for all of us.”

While remaining neutral on the bill, Flynn has said that the ideal situation would be to handle changes to licensing procedures through the Board of Public Education’s administrative rules review process, allowing for more discussion over a longer period of time. As it happens, she said, that section of the rules is up for review this year.

When it comes to how effective a balm HB 246 might be for Montana’s teacher recruitment and retention woes, Melton said the jury’s still out. Two years ago, he said, he might have viewed the potential improvements as only moderate. But with people, including teachers, clamoring to escape cramped urban centers in response to the pandemic, Melton’s current assessment is more optimistic. There’s a desire elsewhere in the country for more space and less risk to personal well-being, and Melton doesn’t think that’s solely due to COVID-19. Perhaps, he said, they’re merely realizing, “I just took my pulse here and I’m not sure that I’m built for the rat race.”

“In some ways, I think that we have a limited-time opportunity to recruit people that may not have been amenable to being recruited before,” Melton continued. “And the availability and the increased flexibility in licensing people from another state removes an impediment for making that happen.”

The next step for HB 246 will be a vote by the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee. If successful, it will move on to the Senate floor.

This article was originally posted on Shifting gears with an education omnibus

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