Dueling proposals to fund the state’s public K-12 schools hit the Montana Legislature last week, with Republicans saying their bill will quickly provide much-needed clarity to school districts around the state setting their budgets, while Democrats say they have a comprehensive package that goes beyond minimum requirements.

In a press conference Thursday, Republicans from the House and Senate gathered along with Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen to promote their bill, which is an inflationary increase for public school funding, meant to tackle the rising costs of providing an education. The increase is required in state law.

The inflationary increase bill is just part of the school funding puzzle and normally the first piece to fall into place during the Legislature. Other bills often address specific programs throughout the Legislature. And House Bill 2, the state budget, has the final say on education funding.

The inflationary increase is on top of the base amount school districts are entitled to in a formula based on enrollment. In fiscal year 2018, the total school fund budget statewide was $1.113 billion. Of that, $739.5 million, or about 66 percent, came from the state. About $355.7 million, or 32 percent, came from local revenue.

The Democrats' version also includes the inflationary increase, as well as Gov. Steve Bullock's preschool program, special education funding and loan assistance payments for teachers.

By holding a press conference Thursday, Republicans said they got out in front of the issue, emphasizing how important it is to pass the funding so school districts will have an idea of what they’ll be able to spend on educating the 146,853 students in Montana public schools.

But Democrats argue the GOP approach doesn’t go beyond the minimum requirement in state law and could be used as a political pawn to hold up their own initiatives.

Rep. Bruce Grubbs, a Republican from Bozeman and former school board member there, is carrying the GOP bill, which will cost $68 million over the two-year budget. That's the cost of the inflationary increase of 0.91 percent in the first fiscal year of the budget and 1.83 percent in the second. The money is included in the governor's budget proposal because it is also included in the bill Democrats are carrying.

Rep. Casey Schreiner, the House minority leader and Democrat from Great Falls, is carrying his party's bill. Schreiner's bill has a higher price tag because it includes more: special education funding, a public preschool option and a quality educator loan program that, once certain requirements are met, helps teachers pay back school loans. A fiscal note summarizing the total cost of the Democrats' bill was not available Friday, but the preschool plan in Bullock's budget is $30 million.

Grubbs said his bill meets the rising cost of a quality public education and is important to move through the lawmaking process quickly.

“This Legislature will soon provide the inflationary increases needed to fund those rising costs that we see every year in our economy. Our Legislature is keeping its commitment to providing a quality education as provided in the Montana Constitution,” Grubbs said.

Rep. Seth Berglee, a Republican from Joliet and chair of the House Education Committee that passed Grubbs' bill Friday, said it’s a Republican priority to get the school funding bill through the Legislature as fast as possible.

“In previous sessions, it’s kind of become a political football. So we’ve made it a priority this session to keep politics out of it as much as possible and make sure our local schools are taken care of,” Berglee said Thursday. “ … Hopefully we can get this through the process and get our schools taken care of.”

Arntzen said Thursday she fully supports the Republican bill, which she said puts students first.

“We have a brand-new set of students that are waiting for this funding. Our schools are determining their budget for this next school year. How important is it that our Legislature, that our governor, understands that schools are not political, that schools are full of opportunity for our most important students,” Arntzen said.

Schreiner said he agrees with the need for school districts to know what the financial future looks like, but said they should also be able to plan for things like special education funding, which they need to pay for regardless of if and how much money comes from the Legislature.

“I think they’re right, I think that’s great. Let’s get this done early so the school districts can know and budget appropriate for our communities,” Schreiner said.

Schreiner said while Republicans emphasized a depoliticized process, he thinks their approach is just the opposite. He also said he thinks his bill might get held up until the Republicans' bill passes the Legislature so the GOP can say education is already funded and his bill isn't necessary.

Schreiner's bill was referred to the House Education Committee on Thursday; a hearing date is pending.

“The bill that was put forward (Thursday) and bragged about during a press conference represents funding the schools’ need but also the bare minimum that this body could actually do to help schools,” Schreiner said. “We’ll see how politics plays out. My guess is they’re going to wait to get their bill across the finish line before they give our comprehensive package an opportunity.”

The Democrats' bill includes money for Bullock's public preschool option. In the 2017 session, lawmakers passed a smaller pilot program that Bullock and Schreiner, who has children in preschool, say has already shown to have a positive effect for the state's youngest students.

A report on the program documented a jump of 21 percent in school readiness for participants, with 93 percent of children who went through the program ready for kindergarten at the end of the year.

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“I’m heartened certainly that folks are saying it’s important we’re funding education. We’ll take a closer look at Rep. Grubbs' bill, but I think more needs to be done,” Bullock said.

The Quality Educator Loan Assistance Program is also a part of the Democrats' bill. This year's proposal moves the program under the Office of Public Instruction and provides money for teachers to help pay off their student loans after meeting certain requirements. Schreiner said the program helps areas of the state that struggle to recruit and retain good teachers.

“If you talk to rural schools and urban schools around the state, recruiting new educators based on the wages we pay is a challenge and so we have to provide other benefits,” Schreiner said.

Another component is special education funding, payments of which are set by appropriation by the Legislature.

“It will also include finally having an inflationary increase for special education that districts all across the state have been begging for session after session after session,” Schreiner said. “ ... This body’s sort of ignored it over the years through politics."

State Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican who has long been involved in school funding, said there is money for increasing special education funding in the general budget bill, House Bill 2, which is how it’s been funded in sessions past.

Jones also said Republican legislation will be brought forward to look at the teacher loan assistance program, as well as preschool options.

Jones is opposed to making an inflationary increase for special education funding the law going forward, as proposed in the Democrats’ bill. He said that’s because the amount of students who need that money can change drastically from budget to budget and the state could end up overpaying if it was locked into regular increases.

“We need to look at it closely each time,” Jones said.

But Schreiner said it makes more sense to put the education spending together in one bill.

“It’s education, why would we piecemeal things together?” Schreiner asked.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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