The public schools enroll 144,000 students: 80% White, 11% American Indian, and 4% Latino, with 41% living in poverty and 2% learning English. The State spends $10,662 per pupil. (Most recent NCES data)
“(1) 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.
(2) 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.
(3) The legislature shall provide a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools. The legislature may provide such other educational institutions, public libraries, and educational programs as it deems desirable. It shall fund and distribute in an equitable manner to the school districts the state's share of the cost of the basic elementary and secondary school system.” Mont. Const., art. X § 1.
In 1989, in Helena Elementary School District v. State, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the State’s education funding system was unconstitutional both because it resulted in inadequate funding and because the spending disparities among the State's school districts “translate into a denial of equality of educational opportunity.” The Court concluded “that the plain meaning of the second sentence of subsection (1) is that each person is guaranteed equality of educational opportunity.”
In 2005, in Columbia Falls Elementary School District v. State, the Montana Supreme Court determined that the State’s school funding system did not meet the constitutional requirements of a “basic system of free quality public schools.” The Court wrote: “Unless funding relates to needs such as academic standards, teacher pay, fixed costs, costs of special education, and performance standards, then the funding is not related to the cornerstones of a quality education.” The Court also explained that “a ‘system’ of education includes more than high achievement on standardized tests.”
As a result of the Court’s decision, the State enacted a new funding system and took steps to address other education concerns cited by the Court.
The trial court in Columbia Falls found that the State had also failed to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and commit in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity. The high Court did not review this conclusion because the State did not appeal it, and the State focused on rectifying the violation.
In 2012, the Montana Quality Education Council (MQEC) filed MQEC v. State, claiming that the State was out of compliance with the funding statute enacted to remedy its constitutional violation in the Columbia Falls case. The parties and the Court signed a Consent Decree, in which the State pledged to provide the annual inflation adjustment that plaintiffs sought. The Decree also stated that, “Economic hardship or a change in financial circumstances of the State shall not serve as a basis for modification of this Consent Decree.”