Home education in Montana has not only grown in numbers over the years, but home educators have also gained respect in the last decade. Originally viewed with suspicion and misunderstanding, home education is now an educational alternative sought after by Montana families, as well as families across our nation.
In 1895 and 1903 the Montana legislature acknowledged homeschools. In 1980 Attorney General Mike Greeley issued an opinion, stating that the 1971 legislature had done away with home education with the school recodification bill. The 1971 bill was limited to cleaning up the statutes and was to bring no "substantive changes" in the education laws. As a result of Greeley’s opinion (what many regarded as erroneous), some homeschoolers were forced into court to defend their right to direct the education of their children.
Advocates of parental control and choice in education worked to obtain protection for home and private education in the 1983 legislative session. There were several bills introduced in that session that were seeking to severely restrict alternatives to public education. The Senate wrote a compromise bill seeking to balance parent’s rights and state’s interests. The present home schooling requirements were adopted in that session (20-5-109 MCA). The State Board of Education was then asked to clarify the reporting requirements of this new law.
As recorded in the CLASS Review, Helena, MT 09/16/83, "The state Board of Public Education formally relinquished all interest and control over private education Thursday. By unanimous vote, the board approved a motion by Thomas Thompson of Browning declaring that it will take no further action of any kind with relation to non-public schools.
"The motion pre-empted the scheduled discussion of a special committee’s recommendation that the board adopt a formal definition of the term ‘organized course of study’ as used in the 1983 law outlining minimum requirements for private schools in Montana.
The vote came moments after Rick Bartos, an attorney for the Office of Public Instruction, presented a legal memorandum stating the new law took the state completely out of private education. ‘The time has come to lay the non-public issue to rest.’ he said. ‘The legislature has spoken and they have spoken clearly.’ Bartos later challenged the board to save its energies for the needs of public schools. ‘Non-public schools in Montana have a greater flexibility today than they have in many other states,’ he said. ‘The public educational system in Montana is our primary focus and cannot be ignored.’
Later, prior to the 1989 session, Representatives Ted Schye of Glasgow and Paula Darko of Libby began planning for the introduction of an anti-homeschool bill. In response to their action, and realizing there was a need to network home educators across the state, home schooling parents met in Helena in the fall of 1988. With the assistance of Mr. Doug Kelley, a Helena attorney, the Montana Coalition of Home Educators was formed. Kent Gilge of Chinook became Chairman, with Executive Committee members Danita Hane from Seeley Lake, Steve White from Helena, Debbie Kersten from Ulm, and Gerry Lewis from Bozeman.
During the 1989 session, the Executive Committee of the MCHE organized and coordinated a response to the attacks on home education in Montana. A lobbyist was hired, a state-wide phone tree set up, and a lot of information was dispensed. In a short period of 30 days, $10,000 was raised by Montana home educators for our Legislative efforts. The result of all of the letters received by legislators from home educators across the state and personal lobbying by homeschool parents made a great impact in Helena. As a result, the threatened legislation was never introduced.
In the summer of 1989, a state-wide meeting was held in Helena, for all Montana home educators. The purpose of this meeting was to establish future activities to promote and protect home education in Montana. It was at this meeting that committees were set up for the first state-wide convention, a state-wide testing study and legislative agendas. A motion was made to accept those on the Executive Committee as representatives of MCHE, it was approved, and the meeting was adjourned.
During 1990 Debbie Kersten and Gerry Lewis resigned their positions on the Executive Committee and were replaced by Mark Gerber from Billings and Linda Collins from Gardiner.
The biggest battle for Montana home educators came during the 1991 Legislative Session. Many home educators will never forget what occurred in Helena. We were attacked by the Montana School Boards Association and School Administrators of Montana who worked together on a very restrictive home school bill. MCHE, at the same time, prepared a pro-homeschool bill for introduction. Their House bill and our Senate bill were introduced within days of each other. Dr. Brian Ray (National Home Education Research Institute), Michael Farris (National Home School Legal Defense Association) and hundreds of home schoolers from across the state converged on Helena for both hearings. Dr. Ray presented and defended the results of our testing study, and Mr. Farris dealt with the legal issues.
To make a long and incredible story short, their bill was tabled in committee (the chairman of the Democratic House Education Committee was Rep. Schye), and our bill made it all the way to Governor Stephens and is now known as 20-5-111. The impact of homeschool children and parents writing and visiting Helena was overwhelming. Legislators serving during that session still remember the events.
From those battles came our first "Legislative Day" events. Home educators used this day as an opportunity to introduce themselves to their legislators in Helena, as well as to become familiar with the legislative process. Montana's legislative victories proved to be of national significance. MCHE member Steve White was invited to represent Montana in Washington D.C. in October 1991 to present a workshop on Legislative Lobbying to the National Home Education Leadership Conference.
From that workshop came encouragement for South Carolina's homeschoolers, who had just ended their session in failure. The following year the South Carolina representative presented the Legislative Workshop, and attributed their renewal of effort to Montana's testimony.
In 1993 Danita Hane and Kent Gilge resigned their positions on the Executive Committee. So as to have greater state-wide representation, Dr. Carl Albertson from Plains, Jeff Waldum from Livingston, Jonathan Martin from Great Falls, and Rick Friesen from Wolf Point joined the Executive Committee, with Mark Gerber from Billings as Chairman. In 1994, Steve White replaced Mark as Chairman.
1993 was a relatively quiet session for home educators, because potential legislation was disarmed by the MCHE Executive Committee prior to it being drafted. For the next number of sessions, few bills had been introduced that represented significant changes to Montana’s homeschool laws. But in the 2003 session, several bills appeared that once again required homeschoolers from across the state to travel to Helena to fight against.
In the 2003 session, Representative Carol Juneau (D-Browning) introduced HB274. This bill was designed to raise the compulsory attendance age from the present 16 to 18. Rep. Juneau’s reason for introducing this bill was related to the 55% high school dropout rate on Montana Indian reservations. MCHE strongly opposed this bill. Fortunately it died in the House Education Committee.
The next and biggest bill that was introduced was another testing bill; SB276. Senator Don Ryan (D-Great Falls) began working on a bill similar to the 1991 legislation, seven months before the 2003 session even began. The unique thing about SB276 was that it stretched beyond testing homeschool students, by also including all private schools.
As in 1991, the homeschool community across Montana voiced strong opposition. On the day of the hearing the capitol was packed with parents and students that traveled many miles to demonstrate their opposition. The hearing Sign-in sheets listed 472 opponents, and 1 proponent.
After Senator Ryan finished giving his opening statement, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Glazer, asked for the proponents (supporters of the bill) to testify. No one spoke in favor of the bill. The chairman then asked for any opponents. A long line began to form. Steve White, Legislative Liaison for MCHE spoke against the passage of SB276, followed by Dee Black of Home School Legal Defense Association, and for the next 3 hours private and home educators gave passionate testimonies against SB276.
Several days later, the committee killed SB276; 9-1. (Senator Ryan casting the only vote in support of the bill.)
Prior the start of the 2005 session, there were many bills requests that directly affected Montana home educators. Senator Trudi Schmidt (D-Great Falls) submitted five bill requests for testing of home school students. Senator Schmidt also requested a bill to ‘define education neglect’. And again, Senator Ryan requested a homeschool related bill titled ‘Quality home school and child protection act’. Senator Ryan’s request became SB291. (And since the results of the 2004 Montana election produced a democrat majority in the Senate, Sentor Ryan was appointed to a Chairmanship position in the Senate Education Committee.)
If passed, SB291 would have changed Montana’s homeschool law from one of the best in the nation, to the worst. SB291 required a homeschooling parent to have either a college degree or teaching certificate. Otherwise, the parent would be monitored by a certified teacher for two years. Further, SB291 also required homeschool students to be tested by a certified teacher, in a public school facility in the 4th, 8th and 11th grades. And also, if a student was determined to be developmentally disabled, the parent would not be able to home educate their child. As expected, Montana home educators rallied against SB291.
Prior to the hearing, Senator Ryan used the state’s email system to send out a request for anti-homeschool stories. As the chair of the Education Committee, Senator Ryan had complete control of all aspects of the hearing.
As the date of the hearing approached, home educators from across the state begin to prepare for their trip to Helena. Using a special website developed to enhance citizen involvement (www.badbills.com), home educators learned much about the legislative process in Montana - and how to prepare.
The hearing on SB291 was held on Valentine’s Day - 2005. Prior to the hearing a special pre-hearing meeting was held to help everyone understand the process. Over 700 attended. In the capitol building, the hearing room was filled one hour BEFORE the hearing began - resulting in closed circuit televisions being set up on all floors of the Capitol for overflow.
Until the hearing on SB291, it was assumed that the homeschool hearing in the 2003 would be the largest in history. But, the hearing on SB291 included 1148 citizens signing in as opponents, and 5 proponents. Those working in the Capitol had never seen a larger turnout for any hearing. Testimony lasted nearly one hour. Opposing SB291 included MCHE Legislative Liaison Steve White, Dee Black of HSLDA, Dr. Brian Ray of NHERI, Evangelina Duke - Miss Montana, Senator Bob Keenan (R-Big Fork) and many others from all political and religious affiliations. Homeschooling parents lined into the hallway, fully prepared with their typed testimony for the committee.
After time expired, hearing Chair Gillan invited people with typed testimony to come forward, state their name and hand in their testimony. Quickly realizing that that would take too much time, Senator Gillan asked for people to come forward and simply pass in their typed testimony. Still, it was determined, THAT would take too much time, since so many people were still in line. Next, Senator Gillan asked that pages collect the testimony in the outside hallway.
Senator Gillan then closed the testimony on SB291. Immediately after Senator Ryan gave his closing remarks, Senator Elliott (D-Trout Creek) made a motion to table (kill) SB291. The motion passed 10-1.
Since those difficult sessions there have been a series of bills introduced in the 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 sessions that were designed to raise the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18 in Montana. MCHE continued their opposition to raising the age. And in those sessions, the bills failed. (and presently there is a bill request entered for the 2017 session to raise the compulsory attendance age)
Since 1988, the primary purpose of the MCHE has not changed; The MCHE is a network of independent support groups, individuals, and organizations who work together to protect Montana's homeschool freedom from government restriction. What the MCHE has never been is an "organization" with a political proactive agenda.
Any issue, whether it is a policy change in a local school district, legislation in Helena, legislation in D.C., or even the United Nations, that adversely affects our home education freedom becomes our focus. And because of the ability to dispense accurate and timely information across this state to a responsive homeschool community, our freedoms have been preserved. There is no greater of a community of like-minded and focused people as home educators threatened with new potential regulation.
In 1991, 2004 and 2005 future of home education in Montana was in grave danger. We were facing some very hostile adversaries. Many of us remember the overwhelming odds. We called upon God for the future of our families and children, and He blessed us with a mighty victory. Over the years I have appreciated the sacrifice of Montana's home schooling parents. Our home education battles may have lessened in recent years, but the battle for the minds and souls of our children still wages on.
Steve White, MCHE