School funding has been a responsibility of the Montana legislature since the creation of the School Fund during the 1864 Montana Territorial Legislative Assembly (Jean, 1988 as cited in Stremick, 2001). Montana's school districts were primarily supported by local taxes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving rise to disparities in funding. As a corrective measure Montana adopted the Common School Equalization Fund in 1927 (Malone, Roeder, & Lang, 1991).
Then, as is true today, school funding was a task addressed by legislators in all states. This is evidenced by the 1932 dissertation of Glenn E. Kester, a graduate student at Indiana State Teachers College.
The Common School Equalization Fund was revisited in the 1940s with a legislative study and subsequent report issued in 1946.
The Montana School Foundation Program was enacted during the 1949 Legislative Session and was the basis for several iterations of public education funding reviews. One such review was conducted in the 1957 Interim Session, prompted in part by the rise of the Baby Boom that "started" in the late 1940s.
A rich summary of the Montana School Foundation Program from 1949 - 1969 was prepared by Paul Campbell. It contains background on public school funding and a session-by-session description of legislative activities during that timeframe.
Discrepancies in statewide equity persisted, and in 1985 a group of plaintiffs filed suit against the State claiming violation of the fundamental constitutional right of persons in the State to equal protection of the law and to equality of educational opportunity. The 1988 decision by Judge Lobel found for the plaintiffs and in a 1989 special session, the legislature made significant changes to the funding formula for public education through HB 28.
Despite the 1989 changes to school funding, the underlying structure still contained large elements of the School Foundation Program. Additional litigation was initiated in 1991 by Helena Elementary and also by the Montana Rural Education Association claiming inadequacy in the revised funding formula. The cases were heard in early 1993 during the legislative session. HB 667, enacted during the 1993 session, addressed the majority of the issues in the Helena Elementary and MREA lawsuits. The Court ruled the suits mood as a result of HB 667, though plaintiffs were given an opportunity to amend their claims.
Adequacy became the focal point of education funding in the 1990s and early 2000s. MQEC was formed in 2001 with the intent of obtaining rational and adequate funding for K-12 public schools. In 2002 a group of plaintiffs supported by MQEC filed suit against the State claiming the constitutional provision of a quality elementary and secondary education was not being fulfilled. The case was heard in 2004 and Judge Jeffrey Sherlock found for the plaintiffs. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the Sherlock decision.
Through the efforts of the Joint Select Committee on Education Funding (which met throughout the 2005 Legislative Session but were unable to complete their work), the Quality Schools Interim Committee (which continued and completed the initial work of the Joint Select Committee), and a special session in 2005 the foundation was established for MCA 20-9-309. This statute contains the definition of a quality education and is a major component of the current funding formula for public K-12 education. MCA 20-9-309 calls for a review of the education funding formula every 10 years.
In 2008, the Columbia Falls plaintiffs returned to court claiming that the State had not fulfilled their financial obligation to public education. Judge Sherlock heard the case and held for the State, finding "the State is in the process of making a good faith effort to preserve and protect Montana's constitutional commitment to a sound public education system." Judge Sherlock, however, did note in findings 119-123 that (1) declining trends in state aid should be reversed, (2) special education funding should be adjusted to cover the growth in special education costs, and (3) additional effort should be made by the state to alleviate ongoing teacher recruitment and retention issues.
In 2011, MQEC filed suit against the State claiming violation of the inflationary funding requirements specified in MCA 20-9-309. The 2011 Legislature initially included the full inflationary increase in compliance with MCA 20-9-309. However, coordinating language in the funding bill called for a decrease in the inflationary component if other legislation failed to pass. This indeed occurred, effectively lowering the inflationary adjustment from 2.43% to 1.6% resulting in a net funding loss of $4.6 million for FY13. Through negotiations with Governor Schweitzer and Attorney General Bullock, MQEC and the State entered into a consent decree which restored full funding to Montana's public schools.
The 2015 Legislature authorized the School Funding Interim Commission to conduct "a study to reassess the educational needs and costs related to the basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools; and if necessary, incorporate the results of those assessments into the state's funding formula (MCA 20-9-309)". 12 legislators and 4 members of the public will meet on these issues and recommend any changes to the 2017 Legislature.
Malone, M. P., Roeder, R. B., Lang, W. L. (1991). Montana: A history of two centuries. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press
Stremick, P. R. (2001). School district consolidation in Montana (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from http://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/8111/31762103509319.pdf?sequence=1