HELENA - It took four hours and one quick break for a bipartisan legislative subcommittee to agree on a definition of "quality" public schools Friday night, and the agreement marks another milestone in the marathon debate over school funding.
Piles of amendments and hours of concessions from both sides of the political aisle yielded a definition of "quality" that the House subcommittee will, after finally voting on the definition Monday, likely recommend to the House Select Education Committee on Tuesday.
The Legislature is working hard to solve the school funding problem after the Montana Supreme Court declared the state's school funding formula unconstitutional in November. The first step on the road to a solution is for the Legislature to define "quality" schools.
"There's a lot of good work there - a lot of bipartisan work," said Rep. Pat Wagman, R-Livingston, who is one of two Republicans on the four-person panel. "I didn't get everything I wanted, but that's part of the process."
According to the newly minted definition of quality, 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.
By and large, the subcommittee worked much more amicably Friday than the Senate did when it wrestled with the definition of quality in January.
Rep. Monica Lindeen, R-Huntley, said she hopes Friday's bipartisan work will advance the debate.
"I think the House had more time and a greater opportunity to understand," Lindeen said.
The subcommittee's definition is essentially a large amendment to the definition of quality as contained in Senate Bill 152, sponsored by Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls. Ryan's bill passed the Senate on Jan. 22, and now the House will make its changes to the legislation.