House takes up bills on computer programming, vaccination, students with disabilities

Legislation to revise vaccination standards die

The interior of the Montana state capitol in Helena, which was completed in 1899, 10 years after the state was admitted to the union. (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

On Thursday, the Montana House killed an education bill to include software programming in schools, legislation pushed in committee by the Governor’s Office.

“This specifically goes with our governor’s Comeback Plan,” said Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, in his introduction to the bill on the floor.

But House Bill 185 died on an 82-18 vote, and even Kerns voted against it after the body amended it. Initially, the bill mandated that schools requiring a foreign language for graduation offer software programming as an option instead, and that math courses include personal finance classes.

The bill died after lawmakers approved an amendment from Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder. On the floor, he pitched that Indian language immersion be an option for the foreign language requirement in schools.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, quizzed Windy Boy on the change: “Given the fact that there are numerous Native dialects, which of them would be taught in the school system?”

Windy Boy pointed to the state of Montana and Montana Constitution protecting both a quality public education and the language and culture of the first people: “All of them, Mr. Chairman. There are 10 tribes, 10 languages.”

Earlier in the House Education Committee, legislators had tabled a language immersion bill Windy Boy sponsored. On the floor, his amendment to add Native language immersion passed 61-39. Kerns opposed the amendment, and he subsequently voted against the bill; he could not be reached for comment via voicemail Thursday.

Before the bill landed on the House floor, the committee amended it to say school board trustees “may” teach coding rather than “shall,” but the bill still raised red flags with legislators.

Although educators have lauded the ideas in the bill, they and some lawmakers have flagged the legislation as among several bills potentially undercutting the authority of local school board trustees and the power of the Board of Public Education.

“This bill is not necessary,” said Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, a former board member, on the floor. “This bill is a violation of the jurisdiction of the Board of Public Education.”

Also on the floor Thursday, members of the House voted to support a couple of bills to help students with special needs. They also opposed a couple of bills that sought to change vaccination standards. However, lawmakers have revived — under a different number and slight modification — at least one bill that failed, so the ideas in failed bills still could resurface.

In a 57-43 vote, the House opted against changing the definition of “immunity” as a requirement for school attendance. The change would have allowed children to attend public schools with a treatment that doesn’t have backing from the medical community, homeoprophylaxis, instead of with a vaccine.

Sponsor Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, said his daughter had experienced some vaccine trouble, and he didn’t want to replace vaccines, but allow alternatives: “I see this as an option to help the health board.”

But Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, said no country has ever approved the treatment Hill wanted as a replacement for vaccinations, and there are no controlled trials with any results. She said she worried about disease outbreaks in schools.

“We need to look out for the little kids,” Sullivan said.

A bill that would have prohibited “discrimination based on vaccination status” and banned the use of immunity passports also failed. Despite an impassioned closing argument from Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, to “send some individual liberty back home to your constituents,” House Bill 415 failed on a tied 50-50 vote.

House Bill 291, to require insurance sold in Montana to provide coverage for hearing aids and treatment for children with hearing loss, passed 91-9 on second reading. Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, said even hardworking people who have insurance are strapped to pay for hearing aids. She said the bill was the outgrowth of a grassroots movement by a group of moms across the state, and it should have been called this: “Never underestimate the power of a mom on a mission.”

Another bill, House Bill 233, which aims to allow students with disabilities up to 21 years old to be included in school funding calculations, passed 95-5 on second reading. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, and on the floor, Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said the additional nurturing and teaching from public schools for those students would be “invaluable.”

“This is the best place for this small group of students to spend a little extra time to become successful in all that still lies ahead of them,” Vinton said.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Windy Boy represents Box Elder.

Previous articleSnowbird fund will help support MMIW efforts
Next articleState funding for public radio on chopping block in proposed bill
Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”