Board of Public Ed takes up advisory council authority, Code of Ethics

By: - July 19, 2022 4:36 pm

Illustration by Getty Images.

The Board of Public Education voted Friday that one of its advisory boards does not have authority to set policy following an earlier blow-up over inserting the term “equity” into the educator Code of Ethics.

“None of us on this committee saw any of the controversy coming, you know,” said Trent Atkins, part of the advisory committee, in a meeting Wednesday.

Friday, on a voice vote with no audible opposition, the Board of Public Education affirmed the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council holds no authority to set policy. In the same vote, the Board agreed it may “accept” Code of Ethics revisions (but not “adopt” them, or give them force of policy, Board members said).

The decisions appeared to put to bed part of a controversy that flared earlier in the year when members of the public and Gov. Greg Gianforte voiced opposition to the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council adding the word “equity” to the Code of Ethics. In a statement in February, the governor described the move as part of “an extreme political agenda.”

“As we’ve seen across the country, promoting equity in education, or the idea that all students end up in the same place with equal results, jeopardizes students’ educational opportunities,” said Gianforte, a Republican, who argued for “equality” instead.

The advisory council is charged with making recommendations to the Board of Public Education on certification issues, professional standards and ethical conduct. Every five years or so, the council reviews the educator Code of Ethics, a set of guiding principles for teacher behavior.

In a series of meetings last week, the Board of Public Education did not take action on the Code of Ethics itself. However, it will take up the revised document at its September meeting.

Unexpected controversy

Members of the advisory council said earlier and last week they were blindsided when the proposal to add “equity” to the Code of Ethics caused an uproar. In a unanimous vote in February, the council had replaced the phrase “understands and respects diversity” with the phrase “demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion and respects human diversity.”

Despite the suggestion from some parents, Kelly Elder, a teacher and chair of the advisory council, said the update had nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, an academic framework that illustrates the way racism is embedded in political structures in the U.S.. Rather, he said it’s about appropriate conduct in the classroom.

“To me, it’s actually more critical than ever that we have an aspirational document that says here’s how you should be acting,” Elder said.

The Code of Ethics made it onto the March agenda of the Board of Public Education. At the meeting, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras argued the advisory council did not have authority to adopt the code despite its history of taking action on it; she pointed to state statute, which notes in part the council’s duty is to “study and make recommendations.”

At the time, the Board of Public Education found the council didn’t have authority to make the revision it had made to the Code of Ethics and directed the council to present revisions to the Board instead.

However, the agenda item had been listed as only informational, and the Board took its vote the same day, against the advice of legal counsel and Chair Tammy Lacey. The lawyer and chair had advised members to take the time to post the item onto the agenda with adequate notice to the public.

The Daily Montanan and Montana Federation of Public Employees, whose members include educators, filed a lawsuit alleging the decision violated the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of the right of participation and right to know. In a settlement, the Board agreed to redo its decision with proper notice, although it did not admit guilt.

Last week, Atkins said he never thought “equity” would become a point of contention. To make it clear the council was not making a larger social statement with its update, he said it added the term “educational” in front of “equity.”

At the same time, Atkins said it might have been too bold to call on teachers to demonstrate a “commitment” to equity. However, he said he believes the idea educators have an “understanding” of equity is a good goal.

“In our minds, it’s looking at the individual needs of students, and in fact, I think we’re obligated to do that,” Atkins said.

Council authority, lack thereof

Last week, Chair Lacey said the Board had two separate but related questions to answer. First, does the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council have authority to set policy? Second, does the Code of Ethics rise to the level of policy?

On the first question, a legal review and other analyses made it clear the council did not have authority to set policy, Lacey said, and board members concurred. She also said that historically, the Board wanted the advisory council to handle the Code of Ethics, but the contemporary Board does not have to follow that tradition.

As for the Code of Ethics, at least a couple of Board members noted it is used widely in the performance evaluations of teachers. In that regard, they argued the code does have teeth, or potential consequences for teachers, and it becomes more than an aspirational document.

“It has essentially become a policy of some sort if teachers are being evaluated on that,” said Board member Tim Tharp. “And that causes some concern that it is risen to that level.”

Because the Board does not want the Code of Ethics to have the force of policy, Board members also decided to ask the Office of Public Instruction to remove the code from teacher evaluations. They said local school districts can make their own decisions about whether to use the Code of Ethics, as is or with local modifications.

After the vote on the lack of council authority, Lacey said she wanted to let other Board members know that the conversation they all had that week was the discussion she envisioned having in March when she requested more time to consider the matter. She said other Board members didn’t give her that time then.

“It took us a lawsuit and money in order to get to the same place that I think we would have been in March,” Lacey said, referring to the $4,500 in lawyer fees the Board of Public Ed will pay in the settlement. “And I feel badly about that.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”