Gov. Greg Gianforte spoke about challenges and opportunities for bipartisanship at the University of Montana for the Mansfield Dialogues. (Provided by Andy Kemmis of the University of Montana)
Gov. Greg Gianforte called on parents — and grandparents, aunts and uncles — to help close the learning gap that emerged after the COVID-19 pandemic by doing one thing.
“It’s easy. Please read to your kids 20 minutes a day. This will help close the gap,” Gianforte said.
Reading and math scores have fallen in Montana, although not to the same historic lows seen nationally, the governor said. Regardless, he said early childhood literacy is critical.
“We must redouble our efforts to get our kids back up to speed and on the right track,” Gianforte said.
The Republican gave remarks at the recent Montana Board of Regents meeting, where he also reiterated his proposals to double the cap of the Big Sky Scholarship tax credit programs and increase money to support starting teacher pay.
“We must pay our starting teachers more for the hard work they do as they start their careers,” Gianforte said.
In phone calls and emails after the meeting, representatives from the Montana Federation of Public Employees and Montana School Boards Association praised the plan to bump up funding for new teachers but gave split reactions to the plan to push up the cap on the tax credit for education programs.
In 2021, the Montana Legislature adopted and the governor signed a controversial law that bumped a cap on tax credits for private school scholarships from $150 to $200,000 per taxpayer and streamlined a credit for public school programs.
The legislature set the total allowable for each program, one for public and one for private schools, at $1 million in 2022 and $2 million in 2023, with an escalator clause for future increases, or a formula to raise the cap.
In a phone call this week, Rep. Llew Jones, chairman of appropriations, said the plan under discussion in advance of the legislative session is to bump the aggregate ceiling to $5 million for each program, although he said the dollar amount could change.
“We have to make sure kids have access to the highest value and opportunities and options they can,” said Jones, R-Conrad.
Generally, Jones said the intent is to expand the program, ensure equal opportunities for the public and private sides, and iron out the methodology to allow more public schools to participate across Montana.
For example, within minutes the credit was available, donors had maxed out contributions to the public school program, according to the Montana Department of Revenue. A revenue report shows one district, Big Sky Public Schools, had received $694,000 of the $1 million credit with just four donations.
The Department of Revenue noted the private school program also reached its maximum contribution in 2022 with the dollar-for-dollar credit. A private scholarship organization, ACE Scholarships, received nearly half of the credits, and several Catholic schools and a foundation received the bulk of the rest, the revenue report said.
Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said his organization isn’t going to argue about increasing the aggregate caps. In the 2021 legislative session, he said the association decided to “make lemonade out of lemons” and ensure the opportunity for more directly supporting innovative public school programs was in the bill, too.
But if the aggregate cap is $5 million, he said, just 25 people could wipe it out at the $200,000 limit. So this time around, he said his organization’s interest is in lowering the cap on individual contributions for public schools, possibly $20,000 or $10,000, so more people can participate.
“By deliberately putting some sidebars on the public side, our hope is to make it more accessible to the average taxpayer and to ensure that that money is distributed more broadly throughout the state,” Melton said.
Jones agreed the Legislature should tweak the program so more money goes to more places, but he said he didn’t believe lowering the cap on the individual contribution would be the right approach. He said another way might be to look at the size of a district’s general fund as a measure.
“I’d always assumed the private side would have large donors, but less of them, and the public side would have more donors, but maybe not so large. That didn’t turn out exactly as planned,” Jones said.
In the last legislative session, some educators argued the tax credit put public resources into private education, and in a statement, the Montana Federation of Public Employees president touched on that argument.
“He, as Governor, is responsible to protect our public investment from being unconstitutionally siphoned off to private schools,” President Amanda Curtis said in the email.
The governor also noted his proposal to increase starting teacher pay, which he championed in 2021 TEACH Act. New teacher salaries had been the lowest in the U.S.
In the last session, the TEACH Act provided incentives to get rookie teachers bigger paychecks based on a formula that included contributions from both the state and school districts. Since then, Gianforte said one teacher on the Hi-Line told him it was possible to give up a second job because of the extra $3,500 in pay.
In his budget, Gianforte said he is proposing a 40 percent increase to the appropriation for newcomers to the profession. That infusion would push the total to roughly $3.5 million a year from $2.5 million.
The money allowed schools to tap into an extra $3,472 to bump up salaries of new teachers. The Governor’s Office noted he’s proposing the rate bump up as well, to $3,566 in FY2024 and $3,673 in FY2025.
Gianforte has described the teaching profession as a calling and did so again at the regents’ meeting.
“For too long, teachers who have answered the call and just started their careers haven’t earned enough as they begin their first years in the classroom,” Gianforte said.
The TEACH Act will support roughly 488 teachers in 109 Montana school districts in the 2023 fiscal year, according to data from the Office of Public Instruction. Some districts are getting $3,472 from the state to help boost just one teacher, but others, such as Hellgate Elementary in Missoula, are getting $68,000 to help nearly 20 teachers.
Melton and Curtis both welcomed attention to teacher pay.
“Any increase in the support for that program is something that we would support and appreciate,” said Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association.
In a perfect world, he said starting teachers would earn at least $40,000. When the Montana Legislature took up new teacher pay in 2021, one estimate of an entry level salary was $27,000.
The MFPE also praised the spotlight on teacher earnings.
“MFPE members are glad the governor recognizes low teacher pay is a barrier to retaining and recruiting Montana’s best and look forward to working with him on meaningful solutions,” Curtis said in the email from her office.
At the regents meeting, the governor said he wants to ensure Montana students graduate with a better understanding of civics and personal finance.
He noted Montana is ranked 29 in guaranteeing access to personal finance courses, although he said he’s pleased the Board of Public Education and Superintendent Elsie Arntzen are bringing such education to high schools.
Gianforte said an entire generation of children has fallen behind since the pandemic, and students have lost valuable learning and social interaction time after “politicians and others decided to shut down schools and campuses during the pandemic.”
The governor called on parents as the most important people in their children’s education to help: “We must protect their rights so they can be involved in their kids’ education.”
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