The Montana Board of Public Education's recommended changes to ARM 10, Chapter 55 of Montana’s Administrative Rules on School Accreditation Standards are opening to the public comment process next month.
“I am grateful that the Board of Public Education has approved the timeline to begin public comment,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. “School quality is not a simple check-the-box process. The new rules emphasize local control through strong programs where every Montana student will have access to pursue college or a career and will have the resources to support their well-being.”
The state of Montana has had school accreditation standards since 1947, and it is among a handful of states that accredit at the school level versus the district level.
The preface from the 1976 accreditation standards states the purpose as to “establish a measure of adequacy by specifying for schools the ‘minimum’ upon which a quality educational program can be built. Second, they serve to insure the size, scope, and quality of the minimum educational program available to the citizens of the state,” according to OPI’s final report on Chapter 55.
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According to OPI’s report, the revisions aim “to better ensure Montana’s school accreditation standards provide all Montana students with access to a quality educational program that will develop their full educational potential and preserve the cultural heritages of American Indians.”
The Chapter 55 revisions began in November 2020. From January to May 2022, a task force held 13 meetings to review and make recommended changes to the superintendent on Chapter 55.
The research phase lasted from April 2019 to October 2021. Following that was the review phase, which occurred from November 2021 to May 2022. During this time, the task force created an "informal, non-scientific field survey" that was administered by OPI to identify needs and perspectives from educators in relation to accreditation and revisions to Chapter 55.
The survey got 271 responses. For school performance item importance related to school quality, responders noted student attendance rates as the most important and state assessment scores as the least important.
For school staffing item importance related to school quality, properly licensed school counselors and properly licensed teachers were close to each other and ranked as the most important. The average length of employment of school staff was ranked least important.
For school policy/program item importance related to school quality, the most important for survey respondents was ensuring all students have equal access to an education. The least important was policy requirements for the board of trustees.
Building off the research and review phases, the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee (NRC) was convened by the superintendent in July and met 18 times that month to finalize the recommendations.
In the end, unanimous consensus was reached on 49 of the 50 negotiated rules.
The only rule on which consensus wasn't reached by NRC was 10.55.710, which covers the assignment of school counseling staff and their ratio to students. As of now, 10.55.710 states that a full-time counselor should be employed for every 400 elementary and high school students in a school. Districts with less than 126 students may contract or employ a licensed, endorsed school counselor or Class 6 specialist or utilize a multidistrict agreement or interlocal cooperative to secure the services.
The following are the three recommended changes to 10.55.710:
First, “Each school must have a school counseling program for K-12 students aligned to delivery standards in ARM 10.55.1901 and national counselor and student standards. The school system will assess the need for student supports that result in the knowledge, skills, and dispositions students need to: address mental health, safety, and well-being; achieve academic success and college and career readiness; and develop the mindsets and behaviors as identified in the national school counseling standards.”
Second, “Based on the needs of the district in concert with national and state standards the superintendent must recommend to the local board of trustees the assignment of counseling staff based on the capacity of individual counselors to provide school counseling programming and services by: employing licensed school counselor(s) or Class 6 specialist(s); or contracting licensed school counselor(s) or Class 6 specialist(s); or utilizing a consortium, multidistrict agreement, or interlocal cooperative to secure these services; or utilizing any other cooperative method that is authorized to secure these services."
Third, “Based on the student need and school population(s) the district superintendent must recommend to the local board of trustees, the assignment of additional degreed, licensed, or credentialed staff (e.g., school counselors, school psychologists, career advisors, licensed clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors, behaviorists, other mental health professionals, and/or other resources) that supports the staffing levels based on evidence-based research and national counseling standards,” the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) stated in a press release on Sept 15.
These changes would remove the student-to-counselor ratio requirement, allowing each district superintendent to decide the appropriate number of counselors for their schools.
On Sept. 14, the Montana Board of Public Education heard from panelists as the rulemaking process for school accreditation standards nears its public comment period that will open on Oct. 7 and continue until Nov. 4.
Many experts' comments expressed worry over the proposed changes to student-to-staff ratios for librarians, school counselors, and superintendents, according to prior Missoulian reporting.
For the final proposed rules to Chapter 55, visit https://opi.mt.gov/School-Quality-Task-Force-Negotiated-Rulemaking and click on "Final Proposed Rules for Chapter 55."
The final revisions to ARM 10, Chapter 55 will be implemented in July 2023 as of now.
Megan Michelotti can be reached at email@example.com.