Bill that would allow children to attend school without vaccination squeaks by in committee

By: - February 24, 2021 7:23 am

The Montana state capitol in Helena, Montana. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

A bill that would change the definition of “immunity” for school attendance and allow children to go to school without vaccines squeaked through the House Education Committee on a 9-8 vote this week.

“I’m a strong proponent of choice, and ultimately, this bill provides a choice,” said Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls.

Chair Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, said House Bill 332 doesn’t tie the hands of the public schools, but tries to clarify terms. Plus, he said exemptions for children to attend public schools without being vaccinated already exist. The Department of Public Health and Human Services provides for religious and medical exemptions for school immunization.

“There’s some strong opinions on all sides of that,” Berglee said.

The bill would define an “immunizing agent” as an antigen introduced through a vaccine, or through “immunotherapy, or through homeoprophylaxis that stimulates immunity without inducing the disease itself.” Homeoprophylaxis is a controversial treatment that hasn’t been backed by medical research.

During a committee hearing last week, a medical doctor said the bill displayed a misuse and misunderstanding of medical terms. A pediatrician noted even the Society of Homeopaths does not permit its practitioners to offer homeoprophylaxis. And a public health expert said one result in Montana could be disease outbreaks such as the measles outbreaks seen in other states.

Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said a good argument can be made that terms need further study and updating.

“I just am not sure that … the education committee is where we ought to be debating this,” Funk said.

Other education bills

  • House Bill 329, Special Needs Fund: A “school choice” bill that would allow parents with special needs students to pay for private education for their children with public funds was approved 10-7 in the House Education Committee on Monday. A legal analysis said the bill may pose constitutional problems, but  Berglee reminded the committee that in another constitutional question on school funding, Espinoza v. the Department of Revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with proponents of school choice. He said the legal note is simply an opinion: “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to move policies forward.”  Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said the program is innovative and exciting: “It’s providing an option that is not currently available to many families that have students with special needs.”
  • House Bill 185, Curriculum: A bill that would allow high schools to offer computer programming as an alternative to their foreign language requirement passed as amended in committee 11-6. Sponsored by Rep. Kerns, the bill also said school trustees “may” provide a personal finance class as part of math course offerings. One legislator who opposed the bill said she still believes the decision would be up to the Board of Public Education.
  • House Bill 233, Life Skills: The bill that revises parameters for school funding and aims to help certain students with disabilities ages 18 to 21 who need to learn life skills passed Monday in the House Education Committee. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, was approved 12-5. Rep. Funk said the bill supports a small handful of children who need help making a life transition.
  • House Bill 404, Oil and Gas Revenue: Heard Monday, this bill would allow school districts to keep a greater allocation of oil and gas revenue relative to their maximum budget. The amount would go from 130 percent to 200 percent as proposed by Rep. Jimmy Patelis, R-Billings. Renee Rasmussen, superintendent of Bainville Public School in northeastern Montana, told the House Education Committee that Bainville is in trouble financially. Oil prices fluctuate greatly, she said, but the cost of running a school steadily increases, with teachers and heat, along with building maintenance, being the top expenses. The committee heard the bill Monday but did not take action.
  • House Bill 403, Rural Teacher Recruitment: A bill sponsored by Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, would create a permanent program to support teacher recruitment and retention in rural Montana and Indian Country. The bill was heard in the House Education Committee on Monday, and proponents said the pilot program, which allows people who are already teaching provisionally or as assistants to stay in their communities and complete their degrees, has worked. In the Blackfeet schools, 100 percent of the teachers that went through the program were hired, and the retention rate is 90 percent, said one proponent. The bill notes an appropriation of $500,000 from the general fund to the Commissioner of Higher Education for the program, which would provide “last-dollar” grants for aspiring teachers to finish their education of up to $5,000 a year, and not more than $10,000 per person.
  • House Bill 68, Military Family Relocation: A bill that supports children of military families in their relocation to Montana has been submitted to the governor for signing. HB68, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, passed without opposition in both chambers. It reads: “The trustees shall assign and admit a child whose parent or guardian is being relocated to Montana under military orders to a school in the district and allow the child to preliminarily enroll in classes and apply for programs offered by the district prior to arrival and establishing residency.”
  • House Bill 186, Teacher Reciprocity: A bill that would give reciprocity to certified teachers outside Montana who want a certificate to teach here has been submitted to the Senate after passing the House floor on third reading 72-27 on Tuesday. The bill passed 10-7 as amended in the House Education Committee. A couple of legislators said the bill, sponsored by Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, still concerned them because they saw the act as overstepping the authority of the Board of Public Education. But committee Berglee said while the Board of Public Ed has much constitutional authority, legislators also have authority in “saying what we believe to be important.”
  • House Bill 192, School Maintenance: The bill has been transmitted to the Senate after passing unanimously on the House floor on Tuesday and earlier passing unanimously in the House Education Committee. Sponsor Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, said the bill allows school districts to save money for capital improvements they see coming. She said it also lets the public know how money is being spent. Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, said the legislation “is probably one of the best transparency bills I have seen.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.