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Bill that funds career and technical education advances in House

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | February 7, 2023 12:00 AM

A bill that would provide continued funding for out-of-pocket expenses related to career and technical education unanimously passed its second House floor reading Monday after emerging from the House Education Committee on Feb. 2.

House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, would grant $4 million annually to expand personalized learning opportunities for students after high school.

“Our kids are struggling to find jobs where they can build a life here, where they can afford to have a family, where they can afford to buy a home and continue to move forward in a prosperous way,” Sprunger said while she introduced the bill at a House Education Committee hearing on Jan. 23.

The program funded by the bill was first established by the 2019 Legislature, but they provided a budget stretching just four years. Sprunger’s legislation renews it while simultaneously shifting the ratio of who receives the money as well as the overall amount allowed to spend. The bill is part of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget proposal.

According to Sprunger, the reworked program will see 75% of the funding going to students with the remaining 25% headed to the schools. In its previous iteration, 60% went to students and 40% ended up with the schools.

Proponents argue the bill will support students building marketable skills while working in a given profession. For example, if a student is taking a certified nursing assistant class but cannot afford scrubs, they can draw on the fund. Likewise, if a student is undergoing a welding apprenticeship and cannot afford steel toed shoes, they can pull from the fund.

The dollars can cover bus passes, exam fees, helmets and other expenses.

During the Jan. 23 hearing, Sarah Swanson, the director of strategic engagement for the commissioner’s office at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, expressed support for the legislation on behalf of the governor’s office and her state agency.

“Innovation is needed at the intersection of education and workforce,” Swanson said.

She said that nearly half of all high school students in Montana enter the workforce without a college degree.

To help students access different industries, schools can apply through the state Office of Public Education for continued funding.

Industry groups also backed the bill. Those organizations included the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Montana Contractors Association, Montana Retail and Restaurant Associations, Montana Dental Association and the Montana Auto Dealers Association. Group representatives said they supported the bill with the hope of bringing more young adults into the labor force. Citing workforce shortages, most urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

According to Scott Reichner of the Montana Auto Dealers Association, increased funding for career and technical education programs allows students to learn while seeing what a successful person looks like in their chosen field.

“The vision of success is often critical to the student staying in school,” Reichner said in his testimony.

School employees also spoke in support of the legislation. The superintendent of Great Falls public schools, Tom Moore, shared the district’s successful statistics from previous career and technical education programs. According to Moore, there has been a 21.6% increase in students acquiring internships or taking dual credit courses after participating in career and technical education programs.

Lorraine Clarno, president and CEO of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, also expressed her support during the hearing. Clarno said Kalispell is continuing to develop a robust work-force learning program.

“Career and technical education plays a huge part in the future of the Flathead Valley,” she said.

Flathead High School has participated in the BUILD Montana Project in the past, which is a private program from the Montana Contractors Association with the goal of introducing students to careers in construction. According to Sprunger, Build Montana is a great example of what HB 257 is trying to achieve by helping private and public entities work together.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or at 758-4459.

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