Missoulian: Montana elected officials raise concerns on funding for hunter ed

by Holly Michels

Montana’s congressional delegation, the Office of Public Instruction and a statewide outfitters and guides group are all calling on the U.S. Department of Education to reverse a decision that blocks federal money from funding school archery and hunter education classes.

The U.S. Department of Education is interpreting the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in 2022, as a ban on using federal money for the classes. In a statement Monday, the department said it was following the law, but understood the concerns raised and was open to discussing a path forward.

In an Aug. 2 letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Montana’s senior U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, emphasized the bipartisan nature of the law and urged reconsideration of how it’s being implemented.

“In Montana, our schools have long offered shooting sport and hunter safety classes that play an important role in teaching safety and personal responsibility to students,” Tester wrote. “Outdoor recreation is foundational to our western way of life and any reduction of federal support for these educational programs is unacceptable.”

The letter said the congressional intent of the BSCA is to support the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 initiatives, which includes archery and hunter education programs, while diverting other money to school resource officers and what are called “school hardening” measures such as locked entrances.

“By misinterpreting which activities are now supported by ESEA, the Department of Education is limiting learning opportunities critical to student safety,” Tester, who voted for the law, wrote.

All three Republicans in Montana’s delegation sharply criticized the Biden administration for the action.

Sen. Steve Daines called it a “war on hunters and the Second Amendment.”

“This move by President Biden’s administration undermines the heritage of sportsmanship that is an important part of our way of life here in Montana and communities across the United States,” Daines, who voted against the law, said in a statement. “I hope they reverse this radical, unfair decision.”

Rep. Matt Rosendale, who represents Montana’s eastern district, signed onto a letter with Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-CO, and Mary Miller, R-IL, calling the interpretation a misunderstanding of the “legislation in order to advance a progressive agenda at the expense of Montanans and their way of life.”

“Hunting is a way of life in Montana, as it promotes conservation, stimulates the local economy, helps feed our population and builds strong family bonds among others,” the letter reads. “Teaching children how to hunt safely is basic common sense and would reduce accidental tragedies, which you claim to care about.”

The letter said that in Montana, the department has awarded $4.8 million to 25 schools through the Stronger Connections Grant Program and that money cannot be spent if the schools offer an archery or hunter education program. It also pointed out the signers originally opposed the legislation.

Additionally, Rep. Ryan Zinke, who represents the western district, signed onto a letter with more than 60 other representatives also calling the move a “gross misinterpretation of the law” and saying the Biden administration’s “abuse of executive authority harms kids and communities all across the country, all in the name of moving forward with a radical anti-Second Amendment agenda.”

“These scholastic programs are where millions of kids learn safe and responsible firearm handling and storage, and this egregious, irresponsible overreach by your department will have far-reaching negative consequences,” the letter reads.

Zinke was not in Congress when the law passed.

In a press release, Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said “there is error or confusion in the narrow interpretation of this federal statute by the U.S. Department of Education.”

“While I applaud the congressional purpose to protect our students and schools from threats of violence, I disagree with the constraint on the delivery of educational opportunities that Montanans value,” Arntzen wrote.

The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association also called for a reversal of the interpretation.

“In a state like Montana, outdoor recreation and hunting are woven into the fabric of our cultural heritage. It is incomprehensible that positive programs like (hunter education) and archery would be used as political pawns,” said Mac Minard, the group’s executive director, in a press release. “Disgusted doesn’t even come close to how we feel about this type of government intervention. Youth-focused programs play a critical role in teaching safety and personal responsibility to the next generation of hunters. We urge Montana’s congressional delegation to fix this and oppose efforts by the Department of Education to cut the programs which are so important to our youth.”

The U.S. Department of Education on Monday confirmed it received the letter from Tester and the one Zinke signed onto. The department said it was following the law passed by Congress and it is open to ways to address the issue.

“The Department of Education continues to implement the law as developed by Congress. The department recognizes the limits this language may place on certain enrichment opportunities with ESEA funding,” a spokesperson said. “We are happy to provide technical assistance on legislative language to address this issue and restore allowability of ESEA funding for valuable enrichment opportunities for students, such as archery and hunter safety programs.”