HELENA - The bipartisan bill that defines "quality" public education sailed through the evenly split House of Representatives on an 84-16 preliminary vote Wednesday and is likely headed to the governor's desk for the signature required to make it law.
Senate Bill 152, by Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, is the first school funding bill that has survived the Senate and the House. Its passage Wednesday completes the first step taken by lawmakers in response to a November Montana Supreme Court decision declaring the state's school funding formula unconstitutional and inadequate.
Before the bill lands on Gov. Brian Schweitzer's desk, it faces a final House vote and then must return to the Senate for final approval of the House changes.
Now that the Legislature has finished the first step, it still must complete the second step and build a new funding formula to distribute state money to schools. That fix is not likely to come before 2006.
"This has been an incredible challenge, and many felt we would fail," said Rep. Monica Lindeen, D-Huntley, chairwoman of the House Select Education Committee. "But Republicans and Democrats can work together."
The House passed the bill after a 50-minute debate, in stark contrast to the 8-1/2 hour debate senators had on the bill in January.
The House Select Education Committee essentially rewrote SB152 after it came out of the Senate, and folded in ideas from many lawmakers. The House passed the bill with only minor changes Wednesday, even though Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, tried to strike an entire section from the legislation. Koopman said the educational goals laid out in the beginning of the bill, which include developing students' ability to reason critically and creatively, are immeasurable and therefore, not defensible in court.
"The problem is, we are going to strap our local school districts with objectives and goals that are simply impossible to accomplish," Koopman said. "This is a wonderful breeding ground for lawsuits."
The state has been sued over its school funding formula twice over the past 20 years. The November decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by school districts, parents and education organizations in 2002.
Lawmakers have built the new definition with careful consideration of its defensibility, and Lindeen said the goals serve as a preamble to the bill and are not part of the actual definition. Koopman's amendment failed on a 22-77 vote.
Another Republican lawmaker tried to kill the bill by saying the Montana Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the Legislature.
"Seven judges have given us an opinion," said Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, raising his voice. "They have no jurisdiction over this body. It bothers me to see this body caving in and giving up its sovereign rights."
Lindeen, however, said that the Legislature should respond to the court's ruling if it wants to keep control of the solution.
"If this body does not respond to the court order, the court will take this issue back and do it themselves," Lindeen said.
The court gave the Legislature wide latitude on how to develop a funding fix. Essentially, the court ruled the current system unconstitutional and gave the Legislature until Oct. 1 to come up with a fix.
According to the state's new definition of "quality" education, schools must use the state's existing school accreditation standards, must offer equal opportunity to students with special needs as well as intellectual gifts and must implement programs that teach all students about Montana's American Indians.
The definition of quality also considers facilities and buildings maintenance, transportation needs and requires schools to track student achievement through assessment tests.
In addition to the definition, the committee also outlined the factors by which the state must adjust school funding. The factors include isolated and urban school settings, at-risk student populations, the needs of Indian students and schools' ability to attract and retain qualified educators and personnel.
Another measure of the definition will give schools more flexibility to move money to and from different funds within their budgets.
Rep. Pat Wagman, R-Livingston, said the bill is a compromise among lawmakers.
"There's a lot of work that has gone into this bill from both sides of the aisle," Wagman said. "Is it a perfect bill? Probably not."
Vote Tally on measure defining quality education
Voting yes were 34 Republicans and 50 Democrats. Voting no were 16 Republicans and 0 Democrats.
REPUBLICANS VOTING YES: Andersen; Arntzen; Balyeat, John; Barrett; Brown, D.; Brown, R.; Glaser; Hendrick; Himmelberger; Jones, L.; Jones, W.; Klock; Lake; Lambert; Maclaren; Malcolm; McKenney; McNutt; Milburn; Noennig; Olson, A.; Olson, B.; Peterson; Ripley; Roberts; Ross; Sonju; Stoker; Taylor; Wagman; Waitschies; Ward; Warden; Witt
REPUBLICANS VOTING NO: Butcher; Everett; Hawk; Heinert; Jackson; Koopman; Lange; Maedje; McGillvray; Mendenhall; Morgan; Rice; Sales; Sinrud; Stahl; Wells
DEMOCRATS VOTING YES: Becker; Bergren; Bixby; Branae; Buzzas; Caferro; Callahan; Campbell; Clark; Cohenour; Dickenson; Dowell; Driscoll; Eaton; Facey; Franklin; Furey; Gallik; Galvin-Halcro; Golie; Grinde; Groesbeck; Gutsche; Hamilton; Harris; Henry; Hiner; Jacobson; Jayne; Jent; Jopek; Juneau; Kaufmann; Keane; Lenhart; Lindeen; Matthews; McAlpin; Musgrove; Noonan; Parker; Raser; Sesso; Small-Eastman; Villa; Wanzenried; Wilson; Windham; Windy Boy; Wiseman
DEMOCRATS VOTING NO: none