Montana's proposed budget would slash funding for an online class program that disproportionately serves rural students, where small schools typically struggle to offer specialty classes. 

The Montana Digital Academy has grown significantly since its first classes in 2010, but it has never received sustainable funding from the state keeping pace with that growth. Instead, one-time-only funding has been added on top of its original $2.3 million allocation. This year, no one-time only funding has been added, effectively resulting in a $1.7 million decrease.

That leaves the program examining its options, which would likely boil down to either cutting class offerings, charging schools for classes, or a combination of the two. 

"We haven't worked out all the scenarios," executive director Robert Currie said. "I don't know what I would really even want to predict."

Several education advocates singled out the group for additional funding in testimony before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on Wednesday. 

"I would characterize (it) as being one of the best things Montana has done for school choice in the last decade," said School Administrators of Montana executive director Kirk Miller, invoking school choice proposals that are often popular among Republican legislators. Miller framed the issue as offering more educational options for rural students who don't have any nearby additional brick-and-mortar options.

Digital academy classes serve a disproportionate number of rural students; kids from Class C schools make up 23 percent of enrollment. 

In Roberts, where about 25 students attend high school, up to three-quarters of the students are taking a digital academy course at any given point, said Superintendent Alex Ator. Almost all of the students have taken at least one in their high school career, ranging from photography to personal finance, and from remedial work to AP classes for college credit. 

Like many rural schools, there's no way Roberts can offer most of those classes. Rural schools often struggle finding teachers certified for specialty classes, and with low enrollments, they would likely only be able to offer part-time jobs even if they had enough interested students to fill a class.

“The Montana Digital Academy really, really fulfills a need for small schools that take advantage of that,” Ator said. 

In early estimates of what a funding cut could result in, costs of $140 for a one-semester class could get passed on to schools. 

"We have grave concerns that what rural high schools will be forced (to do), is to decide whether or not to provide any access and any online coursework, which will reduce that equity of access," said Montana Rural Education Association executive director Dennis Parman. 

Currie noted that students from each school in the hometowns of each legislator on the Senate committee were enrolled in digital academy classes. 

Since the academy started, about 18,000 students have taken more than 30,000 courses, he said. This year will likely finish with about 8,000 enrollments. Enrollments in AP classes are up 49 percent, Currie said. 

new forecast that predicts the state could see $106 million in additional revenue over the next two years was released after the House passed the budget. But lawmakers from both parties have said they will not assume all of that extra money will actually be available, and Republican majority leaders may use any additional revenue to bulk up the state’s cash reserves to protect against future revenue and spending changes.

At Roberts, the $140 price tag would leave the school on the hook for more than $5,000 per year, Ator estimated.

“Would we pick up that tab?... Absolutely,” he said. “(But) I don’t know how many other schools would go looking to find that 5,600 bucks.”

Correction: A 2015 law requires that school district pay for any fees charged by the digital academy. The law expressly prohibits schools from passing costs to students. A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that schools could pass costs to student. 

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Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.