Montana’s slow war on the public education system

March 9, 2023 4:41 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Montana’s teacher shortage, especially in rural areas, has been well documented for years. And yet Montana’s lawmakers believe making rules easier for teachers to lose their entire careers is going to make the teacher shortage better?

Even as tone-deaf and doctrinaire as the Republican lawmakers at the Capitol seem to be, they’re really not that dense (by which I mean clueless).

Not even a little.

These actions by the GOP are an all-out war on public education in Montana, dressed up in the guise of parental rights, something parents have always had at all times. Parents have always been given the choice to opt out of certain topics or courses that run contrary to deeply held religious or social beliefs. And parents have always had the option of enrolling their children in private education. None of that has changed. Nor will any of that change with any number of laws the legislature is considering this session.

Instead, conservatives have invented this cultural crusade, making parents and residents believe that libraries are repositories for pornography, and the classroom is nothing but critical race theory sprinkled in with constant conversations about sex, gender and hedonism. In doing that, they’ve ginned up a toxic narrative about public education in order to provide enough cover to cripple the system, forcing it to fail, and then setting up an industry of private education, which can feast at the trough of public money, while educating students becomes a hopeful side benefit rather than its sole purpose.

How many stories have flooded the news about some private, for-profit education, which later is exposed as hollow, worthless and, even worse, a scam? Heck, folks like Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos were literally pioneers in that field. Remember Trump University?

Some of Montana’s proposed laws seek to hold teachers criminally liable for content in every book on the shelf. And answering a question about sexuality without proper notice could cost a teaching license, if not a career.

Measures like these aren’t designed to protect parents. They’re meant to erode trust in public education, drive good teachers out of the profession, and then, when our children are left with empty classrooms and empty bookshelves, magically declare the system broken, only to have capitalists, entrepreneurs, and business fix the problem with taxpayer money.

Breaking schools in some of Montana’s larger areas may work because there may be enough money and people to make a private system work, but the results in rural areas, where broadband, access and even having enough students will become an issue, will likely exacerbate learning gaps.

What comes after public schools are hollowed out by this legislation will only widen the chasm between the students whose parents have enough money and means to ferret out the education that can help their precious darlings, and those who come from homes where financial struggles or other social challenges prevent parents from taking a more proactive role in their children’s education.

In other words, the haves will have more, and the have-nots will be left in the schools the legislature left behind.

With all the new notification systems the legislature is devising, it’s driving toward serial homeschooling. That is, teachers who want to follow the law will be forced to clobber parents with a lot of unnecessary paperwork, using time educators could be using to teach.

Even worse, the legislature is under the mistaken impression that parents cannot also see what is happening in their kids’ class today, but that ignores the host of technology that is available, like Google Classroom. Most parents know when their student is tardy even because of a bathroom break.

If parents are really so concerned about every lesson and every moment at school, then I would suggest public school isn’t for their kids. By that same token, though, neither is private school. The only workable solution is for the parents to homeschool and take control of every moment of learning. That is the only way for them to truly guarantee that every lesson, every sentence and every conversation conforms to parental acceptability.

But that also seems like a sheltered, unrealistic expectation, especially at a time when the whole world is available to anyone with a phone and cell tower nearby.

The legislature has tricked itself into believing that the sum of education can be distilled by lesson plans or textbooks, without acknowledging that so much of the learning process happens by conversations in class and teachers who are allowed to bring in context, and explain the interconnectedness of subjects.

Heck, lawmakers hold hearings on bills and topics in order to become better versed and more educated on topics, but seem to want to restrict that same process in public schools.

Just like performing a search on WebMD doesn’t make you a doctor, just going to school hasn’t made lawmakers masters of the classroom.

Supporting public schools and making them stronger must be the obligation of those whose lives have been undeniably and positively changed because they are living proof that education is the only gateway to success. My life was changed several times because of experiences I had in the public schools with excellent teachers. They made those impacts without needing a permission slip signed by my parents. I suspect most people have a similar story – and it’s time to stand up, not for nostalgia’s sake, but so that the next generation can be powerfully transformed by a system strong enough to change a student’s life with excellent teachers and strong curriculum.

If we’re going to have what so many Montana Republicans talk about — world-class workforce and economy, and a diversified business sector — then they should be the first ones advocating for strengthening public education because that is the only engine with the capability of delivering that kind of future for our state.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.