HELENA — A new Montana law effectively removes the attendance requirements for a child who is not in public school to participate in a school district’s sports or other extracurricular programs.
Gov. Greg Gianforte signed Senate Bill 157 into law, which prohibits school districts from excluding private and home school students that live within their districts from their offered extracurricular programs on April 28. For non-public school students, the law significantly increases opportunities while continuing to allow them to seek their choice of education.
“It really does create a lot of opportunities for homeschoolers and private schoolers to continue their athletic interests and stuff,” said St. Andrew School eighth grade student Mia Melton who has been attending the private catholic school since kindergarten and really enjoys the atmosphere, educators, and the class sizes St. Andrew offers.
However, Melton is also a standout athlete in basketball and soccer. She currently plays in the Arsenal Soccer program through the Helena Youth Soccer Associate, the most competitive program for her age. “I’m very competitive and like doing all sports. I’ve been in soccer since kindergarten,” said Melton.
Melton was looking to transfer to either Helena High or Capital High for high school due to their athletics programs. Now that SB 157 is law, she can stay at St. Andrew. “Each high school has its ups and downs, but with this law, it’s really made things clearer for me,” added Melton.
Due to their size, St. Andrew just isn’t capable of offering the kind of athletic programs Melton is competing at. Principal Gigi Grotbo says the new law is a fantastic opportunity for many of her students to at least have the chance to participate in those programs.
“What they have we could never provide that in a small environment like this, and what we have they aren’t providing in their environment because of our smaller classes and more intense instruction in different ways,” said Grotbo. “So I think working together collaboratively for these students in this particular town and state is a great opportunity for all of us.”
Those who supported the legislation before it became law noted that these families are already paying taxes that fund the public school programs. Before the passage of SB 157, a student had to be enrolled in twenty hours per week and in regular attendance in ten hours per week at the school where the student wanted to participate in athletics.
Melton and others like her are not guaranteed a spot on any team or with every program. They have to follow any requirements the school has for joining a program, and just like public school kids they’ll also need to try out and compete to earn their spot.
“It was written in the bill, is that these kids will have to meet the same standards that all of our other athletes meet. Our athletes are held to high accountability for their academics,” said East Helena Schools Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.
Whitmoyer said he is excited about the prospect of additional students being able to participate in extracurriculars at the East Helena Schools.
“We’re going to give kids the opportunity to socialize that are homeschooled, which is a little more protected environment,” said Whitmoyer. “They’re going to be able to come in and socialize with kids that are in public school and see a different side of life.”
East Helena is also still growing their high school, and hope some of those kids might be interested in programs they’ve as of yet been able to put together due to a lack of students.
Critics of the new law are concerned it will mean fewer spots in varsity programs for kids who are attending the schools full-time. Opponents have also noted that schools may lose out on thousands of dollars in funding because the student isn’t attending there.
Helena Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream says there's still a lot of unknowns with it being a new law, but the district is committed to implementing it.
“The economic impact is still unknown,” said Ream. “The programs are established right. So coaching, transportation, pieces like that are established. We certainly have programs that are no-cut sports. So I don’t think we’re talking about the volume of students that would cause additional coaching or and an additional bus or something like that.”
While the text of HB 157 is fairly cut and dry, school districts across the state will be working throughout the coming months to implement the changes. Conversations need to be had with the Montana High School Association to make sure rules follow the new law.
Some school districts MTN News spoke with said they also want to take a closer look at their insurance and other contracts to make sure language is current and the definition fits the new students that may be participating in events.