Legislative committee and state superintendent in dispute over law implementation

Elsie Arntzen
Posted at 7:08 PM, Mar 14, 2024

HELENA — Over two days this week, state lawmakers said they heard testimony that raised concerns about how the Montana Office of Public Instruction is implementing several laws that came out of the 2023 legislative session. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group voted to send state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen a letter emphasizing those concerns.

“If we are to assert ourselves as a separate branch of the government, I think this demands a response,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, who chairs the Education Interim Budget Committee.

Committee members voted 6-2 in favor of sending the letter, with three Republicans and three Democrats in support, and two Republicans opposed.

The letter highlights six bills signed into law in 2023 and says OPI has interpreted them “in a manner contrary to” lawmakers’ intent and the interpretation of the Legislature’s counsel and other attorneys. It also says, in some cases, the agency has failed to provide school districts with “clear and timely guidance” on how to implement the laws.

“The result has been widespread confusion in the field, potential delays in program implementation, and delivery of programs that [d]o not comport with the law,” the letter continues. “Those harmed most will be Montana’s school children.”

On Tuesday, the EIBC held a joint meeting with the Education Interim Committee. They continued with a full-day meeting on their own on Wednesday.

Ahead of the meetings, Bedey and Education Committee chair Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, sent Arntzen a letter, asking her to attend and participate in a discussion about several of the bills in question.

“Concerns have been raised as to whether legislative intent is being met in each case, and in some cases there are widespread concerns regarding OPI’s implementation of these programs,” that letter said.

Arntzen did not attend the meetings, but OPI deputy superintendent and chief legal counsel Rob Stutz did and provided responses to the questions raised.

The bills at issue included:

· House Bill 203, which changes laws on when and how students can attend a public school outside the school district they live in.
· House Bill 338, which revised laws on Indian Education for All, including making it a statutory requirement and requiring more reporting on how IEFA funds are spent.
· House Bill 352, which encourages targeted interventions for early literacy.
· House Bill 549, which established a new system for authorizing public charter schools.
· House Bills 367 and 949, which deal with a transition to a new educational data management system.

During the committee meetings, several lawmakers said they saw a consistent pattern of OPI’s legal staff interpreting bills differently than what the Legislature intended – and they said the impact was to delay program implementation.

“I’ve kind of lost confidence that these bills are going to be able to do positive and good work for students, because we continually find ourselves here,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

Stutz said OPI has worked hard to give good guidance to school districts as these laws are implemented, and he said the agency has to follow the language in the laws as they were written.

Stutz also read a statement from Arntzen in response to the committee’s action. OPI also released that statement to the public.

“This is a political persecution,” Arntzen said in the statement. “I am being attacked because I am a conservative. I stood up for limited bureaucracy, fought the radical transgender agenda, opposed woke-ism, promoted good government, and delivered results for our children, parents, and schools.”

Arntzen went on to say OPI would – and had to – keep following the written laws.

“The Legislature must stand by its words,” she continued. “Relinquishing law writing power for convenience would be a slippery slope. We have seen where this leads nationally; agencies are unresponsive to the rule of law. Montana does not want an administrative state.”

Arntzen is in her eighth year as superintendent, after being elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020. She couldn’t run again this year because of term limits and is currently seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. House in Montana’s eastern congressional district.