Bozeman Chronicle gets it right.
Privatization of Montana’s public schools is one bad idea, not justified by the quality of our schools, and blatantly unconstitutional.
Editorial: ‘School choice’ could have far-reaching implications
January 6, 2015
In this era of knee-jerk politics, meaningful dialog is often the first casualty. And such may unfortunately be the case with the issue of public funding for private schools in the 2015 Montana Legislature that convenes on Monday.
Proponents and opponents have already picked up sides with positions stated in terms that fit on bumper stickers. But this is an issue that merits a more nuanced discussion. It does, after all, involve the education of our children.
Some things to consider:
Proponents have co-opted the term “school choice” with all its benign implications and the suggestion that somehow we don’t have it right now. In fact, we are free to send our children to any school we want.
In addition, Montana has very liberal home-schooling regulations, and many parents take advantage of that. What the debate is really about is reallocating public money for private education. And that’s something that will of necessity reduce the resources available to public schools, diminishing the quality of education in those schools and raising questions about equality in educational opportunities.
There are constitutional considerations. The Montana Constitution mandates equal opportunity to education for everyone. And it strictly prohibits the allocation of public funds – directly or indirectly – to any religiously affiliated school. Attempts to get around that will require an amendment to the constitution.
The question of “[e]quality of education opportunity” guaranteed in the constitution may pose challenges concerning education in rural vs. urban areas. While cities may offer numerous education alternatives, rural areas many offer none – other than homeschooling – within a reasonable distance. And not all parents have the luxury of considering homeschooling as an alternative for their children.
There are many variants in this debate. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia provide for some form of school vouchers – stipends given to parents who can then take them to schools of their choice. But most programs are restricted to students with special needs, families that fall below some income level or students that live in demonstrably failing school districts. Other states offer tax credits to families that choose to send their children to alternate schools. And many states have authorized the formation of charter schools – publicly funded schools formed by teachers, parents or communities with more autonomy than conventional public schools.
School vouchers, tax credits and charter schools have been forced to the forefront of debate in states where the quality public education is in crisis – in socioeconomically deprived inner cities or rural areas suffering grinding poverty. Montana has some school quality issues in a few areas – perhaps, notably, on Indian reservations. But, statewide, it’s more difficult to make a compelling case for urgent action.
As lawmakers convene for the next three and half months, the so-called “school choice” debate will get heated and garner a lot of attention. It’s essential that we consider all the ramifications and make certain the action we take – or advocate for – is in the best interests of the state as a whole.