Montana’s educator Code of Ethics partly revised, but without the word ‘equity’

By: - September 16, 2022 3:44 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

A motion that the Montana Board of Public Education adopt an updated Code of Ethics for educators — with the word “equity” included — didn’t get a second this week.

Instead, the Board adopted Thursday a separate motion to accept a couple of changes but send the portion with the term “equity” back to an advisory council. It did so without the support of Chair Tammy Lacey, who said she was perplexed and saddened to see the important concept in education politicized.

“I think we have to be careful with the message that we are sending our educators,” Lacey said.

She said the work teachers do is embedded in equity, in meeting children where they are at, supporting them, and moving them forward, “the very definition of the word equity.”

“And we can’t even include it in our code of ethics,” she said. “I think that says something about us.”

The Code of Ethics is updated every five years or so, and this time, an advisory council’s decision to insert the term “equity” into the code raised controversy.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte criticized the proposed change earlier this year and called for “equality” instead. Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras pushed the board at one meeting to take action on the advisory council’s authority to update the code even though the board hadn’t notified the public in advance. 

(After a lawsuit by the Daily Montana, the Board redid the vote with public notice, although it didn’t admit wrongdoing. The Board voted that its advisory council doesn’t have the authority to set policy, and the board itself “accepts” recommendations, but it doesn’t give them the force of policy.)

At the meeting this week, Lacey said the Board had received substantial and eloquent comment in support of equity. She also said citizens were “overwhelmingly appalled” the board would consider striking the term.

However, Sharyl Allen, deputy superintendent with the Office of Public Instruction, said she appreciated “that three B was not included” in the motion that did end up approved.

That proposal for “three B” or “3B” was to strike “understands and respects diversity” and replace it with “demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion, and respects human diversity” in reference to the ethical educator.

“The last time I checked the constitution, it was equal opportunity for all students, not based on equity,” Allen said.

The motion from board member Madalyn Quinlan to adopt revisions from the advisory council, which included the word “equity,” died without a second. Then, board member Renee Rasmussen proposed a motion to adopt other changes but remand 3B to the advisory council, and it passed, albeit with Lacey in dissent.

In public comment, Montana educator Rob Watson shared his family’s story of education in Montana, and how his mom’s teacher understood the concept of equity. He said the deck was stacked against her.

English wasn’t spoken in her home, and by most standards, her family was living in poverty, he said. Her parents were undereducated, he said, and they were raising six half Mexican, half Filipino children in rural Montana.

“I’m here to tell you that equal access and opportunity was not enough,” said Watson, who previously served on the advisory council that supported adding equity to the code.

However, in a one room schoolhouse, “Mrs. Mosby” not only gave Watson’s mom extra tutoring, the teacher also taught his grandmother how to read because she knew that would have a direct impact on her children.

“Mrs. Mosby was a hero, but she’s not unique,” Watson said. “I can tell you that today, we have many heroes every day working with our kids in Montana, going above and beyond to make sure that they meet the unique needs of every child.”

Watson is head of the School Administrators of Montana, but he said SAM had not taken a position on the code, and he spoke as a Montanan.

Montana Constitution Article X

Section 1. Educational goals and duties. (1) It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state.

At the 1972 Constitutional Convention, he said delegates debated including the phrase “full educational potential,” and some were nervous about the word “full.” But he said the language makes clear it’s a goal, not a mandate, and he believes the inclusion of the phrase shows the concept of equity was important to the delegates.

“Not only did they guarantee equality of educational opportunity, but they also made it a goal to establish a system that would develop the full educational opportunity of each person,” Watson said. “And that is the very definition of equity.”

Years ago, he said delegates didn’t give into their fears about including “full educational potential” in the constitution, and he asked Board members to not give into their fears either.

The Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council is expected to take up the code again in October.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.