Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, sat in his office recently and talked about why he supports school choice, a nationwide movement to increase access to charter and private schools.
“I’m of the belief that the child’s education isn’t the responsibility of the state,” he said. “It’s the parent.”
Sales’ belief underscores most education debates – who’s in control, who’s responsible. Montana Republican legislators have bills both introduced and still being drafted aimed at giving parents more options and eliminating the national Common Core standards, which have been adopted by most states in the country.
These debates percolate each legislative session – to no surprise.
“There are certain topics that never go away up here,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.
The debate over choice
State funded school choice started gaining traction across the country in the 90s, championed by the likes of 2016 presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. In Montana, the Montana Family Foundation leads the push.
Bowen Greenwood, the communications director for Montana Family Foundation, said the goal isn’t to eliminate public schools, but to give parents more options.
“Montana public schools do very well for many students,” Greenwood said, but “there are kids who don’t thrive. There are kids who drop out. Sometimes what a student needs is a different environment.”
Opponents say it’s not the state’s responsibility to help parents pay for private schools, and that it would hurt the budgets of public school districts around the state.
On that side stands Eric Feaver, the president of MEA-MFT, the teachers’ union. He remembers the first school choice bill he lobbied against—a 1993 bill offering a tax credit to parents sending their children to private schools.
“It didn’t attract big crowds of people,” Feaver said.
Things have changed since then. Other states have implemented some form of expanded school choice, with either charter schools or tax breaks for families sending kids to private schools. And now, people in Montana are interested.
In the House Education Committee before a recent hearing on a school choice bill, chair Rep. Sarah Laszloffy, R-Billings, asked the people who’d filled the room to raise their hands if they supported of the bill.
More than a dozen hands shot up. She then asked opponents to raise their hands. Eric Feaver and four others, secluded in the front corner of the audience, raised their hands.
The bill in that hearing was House Bill 322, sponsored by Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings. The bill would create a state special needs education savings account, funded with money directly from the budgets of local school districts.
Students with disabilities between the ages of five and 19 could use the money to go to private schools or other institutions that would meet their needs. The bill would also allow their siblings to use the money.
The bill was only the first of its kind to be introduced.
Sales has an unintroduced bill that would give a $1,000 tax break to parents who send their kids to private schools.
Sales himself, like many on his side of the school choice debate, is the product of public schools. However, he sent his kids to private schools, and knows it’s expensive.
He said the bill is aimed at parents who want to send their kids to private schools but can’t afford it, like some people Father Leo McDowell has met in Livingston.
McDowell is the administrator at St. Mary Catholic School in Livingston, where tuition costs more than $4,100 a year. Around 45 students are enrolled at the K-8 school.
The school is growing, McDowell said, but their enrollment is well below the school’s capacity.
“We could probably support 120,” McDowell said.
He said the price tag keeps some parents from sending their kids there. A tax break might alleviate the sticker shock, he said.
“Those who, in their mind, would think it would be impossible might actually think about it,” McDowell said.
Feaver, however, said that tax credit bills have come and gone over the years.
In the past, most school choice bills have split the parties a little -- a few Democrats voted in favor of them, and moderate Republicans opposed them -- and what has reached the Bullock's desk has been vetoed.
The debate over control
Another target in the education debate are the Common Core standards Montana adopted in 2011. Common Core standards have been adopted by most states in the nation, and each has amended the standards to be unique to their state. For example, Montana’s standards include Indian Education for All, which ensures students in every Montana school learns about Native American history and contemporary issues.
Rep. Debra Lamm, R-Livingston, has an unintroduced bill aimed at getting rid of Common Core. The debate over the Common Core centers on who controls the standards.
Lamm, who got involved in education policy by working on school choice issue, thinks Common Core is flawed and props up large corporations that profit from education. She said that with Common Core Standards, federal authorities dictate how states educate their students.
“It’s really disingenuous to say that we still control it,” Lamm said.
Her proposal would void any standards or assessments related to Common Core and create an accreditation review council to develop education standards for the state.
State education officials, however, praise the standards as a major jump forward.
“It would be a huge mistake to go backwards,” said Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction. Juneau said the standards line out what students should learn at each grade level, but how teachers decide how to get students to meet them.
Some teachers also support the standards. Sharon Carroll, a high school math teacher in Ekalaka and member of the Board of Public Education, likes Common Core. She said it allows her students to explore some concepts deeper, and encourages them to be more interactive in their education.
“Kids remember better when they engage better,” Carroll said.
Carroll also said Montana’s standards are unique, and that teachers and local school districts were in full control of how they meet the standards.
Feaver said that fight might be coming too late since the standards have been used for the last four years.
But the state funded school choice debate is on in full force.
In the hearing on HB 322, Rep. Don Jones began his opening speech with the crux of the argument for school choice.
“It should be the parent’s choice,” Jones said in his opening speech on the bill.
Proponent after proponent spoke – including Jeff Laszloffy, former legislator and the president of the Montana Family Foundation, who promised more school choice bills would come before the committee. A teacher from Belgrade and a few parents who said their kids would have benefited from more options also backed the bill.
In opposition, Jim Molloy, representing Gov. Bullock, criticized HB 322 it as bad policy, and said he’d likely be speaking against all of the other school choice bills as they came up.
Time had run out for all of the opponents before Eric Feaver got up to speak. The chair of the committee, as is customary for hearings that run too long, asked speakers to briefly state their name, organization and opinion.
Feaver gave his name, organization and then stated his position.
“We rise in firm opposition as we have for more than 20 years to this bill and all its kindred spirits,” he said.
-Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.