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Recent Events | Costing Out

Historical Background

In 1985, a coalition of school districts and parents filed a lawsuit claiming the State of Montana deprived students of equal educational opportunity under the state education article. In 1989, the Supreme Court of Montana declared, in Helena Elementary School District No. 1 v. State, 769 P.2d 684 (1989), that the state's education finance system was unconstitutional.

The Montana Constitution's strong education clause provides that "It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state." It also provides that “the state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

The supreme court in Helena said, "We specifically affirm . . . that the spending disparities among the State's school districts translate into a denial of equality of educational opportunity." The Montana legislature responded in 1989 by adopting a foundation program with higher payments from the state to local districts and, in 1993, overhauled the formula, this time benefiting smaller districts.

Costing Out

In August 2002, five major Montana education organizations announced the results of a study to determine the cost of funding an adequate education in Montana. The study called for a 17% increase in total statewide pre-K-12 spending.

Columbia Falls v. State

In September 2002, a group of plaintiffs, backed by the Montana Quality Education Coalition (MQEC), filed suit in Columbia Falls Public Schools v. State, seeking adequate and cost-based school funding. Plaintiff school districts and individuals, who are representative of districts across the state, alleged that declining state funding for K-12 schools has caused schools to: cut programs and staff; face a crisis in their ability to attract and retain teachers; and fail to comply with the state's minimum accreditation, performance, and content standards.

After a trial in early 2004, the state district court held that:

the current funding system fails to provide adequate funding for Montana 's public schools;
the State has shown "no commitment in its educational goals to preservation of American Indian cultural identity;" and
the State does not pay its "share of the cost of the basic elementary and secondary school system."

On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court ruling and released its decision in time for the legislature's 2005 session.

After wrestling with the school funding issue in its regular session and studying it further, the legislature, in a special December 2005 session called by the governor, increased funding 9 to 10 percent.

Recent Events

In the 2007 legislative session, a 7.3% funding increase was approved, as was a one-time infusion of $42.5 million for specific programs, according to the Great Falls Tribune. Both of those funding increases applied to the 2007-08 school year. However, the legislature, which meets every other year, approved only a 1.9% increase in funding for the 2008-09 school year, along with only $2.5 million in one-time funding. In late 2007, the MQEC called upon the governor to call a special legislative session, to no avail.

On February 5, 2008, MQEC filed suit in Helena District Court, seeking supplemental monetary relief to help districts avoid funding shortfalls in 2009. Tom Cotton, chair of the MQEC, explained why the group was returning to court: "I think the main problem is that the state hasn't determined the cost of providing a basic system of free, quality education. Even though they have their own definition of what a quality education entails, they have not sat down and figured out how much that will cost. I think that's the main crux of the problem; that we don't have a long-term sustainable funding solution in place."

Contributing to the budget crisis has been the ongoing reduction in the number of students attending rural schools. Because state aid is based on enrollment, rural districts have had to make drastic cutbacks as their populations have dwindled.

In May 2008 the Montana District Court denied a motion by the defendant to dismiss plaintiffs’ motion for supplemental relief in Columbia Falls Elementary Sch. Dist v. State. Plaintiffs claim.

In May 2008, The court granted plaintiffs’ motion for supplemental relief which was based on a claim that although the State has contributed more money to the system, it has not addressed the structural deficiencies in the funding formula. Hearings were heard regarding the state’s compliance in September, 2008. A decision is pending.

Useful Resources

The Montana Quality Education Coalition website includes summaries of the Columbia Falls trial, newspaper articles and related links.

Last updated: December, 2008