Everyone has a stake in public education

February 26, 2022 5:47 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

You don’t have to be a parent to care about your local school.  But recently there are groups popping up around Montana who refer to themselves as the “parental rights movement,” as though they have more of a stake in public education than those who don’t have kids in the school system.  

The “parental rights movement” is a relatively small group of people with an ax to grind and clearly don’t represent most parents.  Recently they have been attacking masks, vaccines and how we teach history.  In their view, they should be able to mandate school policies, because they know what is best for “their kids.”

But they don’t have any more “rights” than the rest of us.  Montana’s schools are funded by taxes all of us pay.   There are approximately 145,000 students in public schools in Montana while the total population is more than 1 million people.  That means lots of people without children in the system are paying for schools.  

The issue is deeper than tax dollars.  Despite the protests from the right wing that schools shouldn’t teach “values,” the truth is that’s exactly what an education system is supposed to do.  Simple things like, “wait your turn,” “help your neighbor,” and “be a good sport” are all practical applications of values we need to function in society.  Moreover, schools provide the basic skills needed to be a productive citizen.  We all have a stake in the performance of our schools.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of American Democracy is the creation of a public education system that is open to all citizens.  Historically, education was only available to the wealthy.  The rest of us were shuffled to the bottom end of the economy to provide the cheap labor needed for economic expansion.  More than anything else, our universal public education system set the table for the rapid growth and expansion of the American economy. Despite the criticism from the far right, American public education is an overwhelming success.

Unfortunately, schools are fodder for right-wing political forces. There are some who don’t want their kids (or anyone else’s for that matter) exposed to ideas, information and people they don’t like.  There is also a lot of money in the public school system that many people would like to take for their own private businesses (for example, charter schools).  Others want to strangle public education by cutting property taxes to benefit their own wallets.  These controversies build an agitated base of political activists.  It is no accident that the anti-tax crowd, in addition to Republican officials like Elsie Arntzen and Austin Knudsen, have entered the fray, urging people to challenge and even sue their local school.  

None of this is new.  Thirty years ago, the bogeyman was “Goals 2000.”  Then along came people, like our Governor, who want to teach Christianity as science. Others didn’t want education about human sexuality, and now we are even hearing about some people who want to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust. The internet (which wouldn’t exist without American public education) provides an unfiltered platform for these people to meet each other, swap stories, build conspiracy theories, and mobilize their followers.  

Controversy around educating our kids makes it harder to teach children.  Local school board meetings are turning into a gladiators’ arena of angry culture warriors armed with placards and bullhorns.  They come to make a point and to intimidate their fellow citizens who serve, without pay, on the school board.  They are, in a word, bullies. 

Like we all learned in public school. . . we must stand up to bullies.

Ken Toole had three children complete education in Montana’s public schools.  He currently has 2 grandchildren in Montana public schools.  He served six years in the Montana Senate and 4 years on the Public Service Commission.  He is currently the Chair of Big Sky 55+ a non-profit group that advocates for older Montanans.


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