HELENA — Montana’s Board of Public Education opened consideration Monday on proposed changes to the state’s school accreditation standards – but there’s still a long way to go before any final decision is made.
At a special board meeting, representatives from the Montana Office of Public Instruction gave their rationale for long-discussed updates to the baseline standards for accredited schools in the state. Most of the proposed changes were hammered out over the last few months by a negotiating committee of education leaders.
Julie Murgel, OPI’s chief operations officer, said one of the central goals is to change the focus of accreditation to a model based on student outcomes.
“This is where really it comes to heart, where we’re talking about starting to shift how we’re accrediting schools and how we’re holding them accountable to know what they’re doing – that it’s not just a checklist, but it’s rather saying based on the needs of your district, how are you going to assure all of these things are happening, driving toward what those student outcomes are,” she said.
The proposed changes call on districts to implement “integrated action plans,” as a way of aligning the various strategic and other plans they have been required to complete.
Several of the proposals remove requirements that districts employ a specific number of specialized staff based on their number of students. Throughout the process, Montana Superintendent of Elsie Arntzen and OPI leadership have called for giving local school districts more flexibility in how they meet these requirements.
“It is about meeting the needs of students through the program services, rather than just saying you’ve staffed it at this level,” said Murgel.
That includes the one proposed change that did not get consensus approval from the negotiating committee – eliminating a rule that requires one school counselor for every 400 elementary students and high school students. Arntzen forwarded the language negotiators could agree on, which said schools must have counseling programs and that district superintendents must make recommendations on staffing them “based on the capacity of individual counselors.” However, the committee had deadlocked over whether to include any specific ratio.
During Monday’s meeting, several commenters expressed opposition to removing the ratio – with some even asking for it to be changed to one counselor per 300 students. They said counselors in this state are already strained having to serve as many students as they do.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships, and relationships take time and dedication and focus to build,” said Renee’ Schoening, executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association. “We simply can’t do our jobs effectively if we are responsible for too many students.”
This is only the beginning of the process, and the board took no immediate action Monday. They will likely put the proposals out for formal public comment this fall, with a public hearing to be scheduled during that time.
“It’s really important that the public submit their public comment at that time, so that it is a part of the official rulemaking record,” said McCall Flynn, the board’s executive director. “That is the information that the board will respond to when it comes to rulemaking.”
The board could give final approval of the new standards in early 2023. They wouldn’t go into effect until July.