Billings students

Castle Rock Middle School seventh-graders look out of a classroom window as they tour the new Medicine Crow Middle School under construction in the Heights in April 2016. Voters in May turned down a tax increase to help operate Billings Public Schools.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte are both campaigning on promises to improve the state’s public schools, but their visions of what needs to change and how to make it happen differ greatly.

“It’ll be in line with what he has done over the last three and a half years, which has been to ensure that all students have access to a great public education wherever they are in the state,” Bullock’s Education Adviser Siri Smillie said. “Ensuring that students are prepared for college or career starts before students enter kindergarten, with preschool.”

Many of Bullock’s proposals, including a plan for voluntary public preschool, are revived versions of initiatives that failed to pass the Legislature in the 2015 session. Bullock, who has the support of school unions, also includes school facilities in his infrastructure spending plan, wants to further expand dual enrollment opportunities and touts recent funding increases for districts.

Gianforte’s proposals focus on doubling down on the use and instruction of technology in the classroom as well as reducing burdensome regulations, a theme carried throughout many aspects of his campaign.

“Education has been an extremely important area for me in most of my nonprofit work over the last 15 years,” Gianforte said. “I favor giving parents more options in education.”

Gianforte has suggested expanding the use of digital content delivery, adding computer science courses to more schools and revamping reporting requirements as part of a proposal to spend more money in the classroom rather than on administration or support services. In the past, he has supported school choice efforts through his nonprofit board memberships.

As the state reports declining revenues, it is unclear how Bullock might fund some of his education proposals, which likely will face opposition from conservatives looking to fend off spending increases. Gianforte has said increases might not be needed to improve outcomes, suggesting that the current funding levels just need to be focused differently. He also said that spending on school facilities likely will have to wait until the state’s revenue collections improve.

Infrastructure, spending

Education “traditionally tends to be an advantage for Democrats,” said Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson. In the gubernatorial race, this is most evident from the endorsement of Bullock by MEA-MFT, the schools union group.

“We really like Steve Bullock. We think he’s done well by us,” President Eric Feaver said, noting that the Democrat has supported school funding increases, expanded state spending on continued education for teachers and expanded the Montana Digital Academy that supplements courses already offered at schools statewide. “There are still some things left undone. Infrastructure obviously.”

Montana ranks near the bottom nationally for the state's share of funding for school construction and repair, according to U.S. Census figures on government finance. A 2008 state inventory tallied $360 million in needed repairs, a number that education advocates say has likely grown because the state has spent only a few million dollars a year on the problem. That figure does not include the cost of new construction to manage district growth.

Bullock’s infrastructure proposal, Build Montana, includes school facilities on the list of priorities, along with water and sewer improvements. He introduced a similar plan two years ago that did not advance out of committee. He fought for schools to be included in other bills, but the 2015 Legislature ultimately failed by one vote to approve any major infrastructure funding and did not pass measures to fund the Quality Schools Grant Program, effectively killing it and shifting the burden to local taxpayers.

Gianforte, by contrast, has not included schools in his infrastructure proposal. He has said he is open to discussing ideas, but is skeptical that the state will find enough revenue to fund school projects given declining receipts from oil, gas and agriculture.

“The best way to fund education long term is to have a strong private sector so we have a tax base that can pay for education,” he said.

The State of Montana spent about $6,000 per student in the 2014 academic year, while districts collected another $5,000 from local taxes and federal officials funded about $1,000 per student, according to the most recent year of school finance data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. That puts Montana squarely in the middle of state rankings for per-student funding.

According to the same data, the state also ranks 21st in the nation for the percentage of all spending that went toward the salaries and benefits of instructional staff, 60 percent compared with a high of 69 percent in New York and low of 54 percent in Oklahoma. However, Montana’s starting teacher salaries, about $28,500, are the lowest in the nation and a little more than half that of neighboring states.

Gianforte said he would advocate for “less federal overreach” and seek out ways to loosen state requirements that tie the hands of local school boards and potentially increase spending outside the classroom.

“We developed this inspect-and-report mentality that is consuming resources,” he said. “We’re measuring the wrong things, too many things or too often. That needs to change. That’s more of a cultural issue that we can fix with new leadership.”

Technology

Gianforte has centered his education platform on technology.

He proposes adding computer science courses to every high school and allowing coding courses to count toward foreign language requirements. A group of language teachers has opposed that second proposal, noting that such graduation rules are set at the local level and not part of state requirements.

Gianforte also has called for an expansion of the Montana Digital Academy, which offers online courses to students in schools that do not offer those remedial or advanced courses. Citing a program in Darby as an example of technology innovating instruction, he suggested that schools could use online instruction to increase offerings and personalize the learning plans of students.

“Historically, we’ve had a teacher who is the primary deliverer of content and reviewer of performance,” he said, noting that Darby’s model is similar in philosophy to the self-guided education nonprofit Khan Academy. “This changes the role of the teacher slightly, and change is always hard. I’m not saying it’s right for every school, but we ought to make these tools available and then let local school boards decide whether to adopt them.”

Public vs. private

When the state’s digital academy was first founded, many teachers were nervous that it was a move toward replacing them in classrooms. Today, some see Gianforte’s proposal to significantly expand the academy as evidence of an agenda to privatize education.

“Greg Gianforte is an existential danger to public schools in this state,” Feaver said.

The union president highlighted several instances from Gianforte’s philanthropic work that he said run counter to advocating for quality public education. He said Gianforte’s contribution to a creationism museum in Glendive is evidence that he might tamper with science standards in schools and said that his previous support of bills that would direct some public funding to help parents pay for private school could undercut funding for public schools.

Feaver focused on Gianforte’s support for a program that offers a tax credit for people who donate to scholarship programs for private schools. The law, passed in 2015, has been challenged in court because it indirectly reroutes tax dollars to religious schools in potential violation of the state constitution. He also noted that Gianforte serves on the boards of Petra Academy, a Christian private school in Bozeman, and ACE Scholarships, two groups that could benefit from the state’s new scholarship tax credit program.

“This is self-interest of the lowest sort,” Feaver said.

Gianforte has defended his work with education nonprofits as proof that he is committed to seeing every child reach their full potential and said that supporting private school options is not the same as opposing public schools.

“My opponent wants to condemn my Christian faith,” he said in March when asked about his work at Petra and for other nonprofits that work to advocate for private schools, particularly those that are faith-based. “I believe that parents should have more say in how their kids are educated.”

Republicans have called the critiques of Gianforte’s school choice record as hypocritical given that Bullock, earlier this year, celebrated the Board of Education’s approval of the state’s first two charter schools, which receive state funding but have flexibility on some state rules to implement alternative education models.

Bullock, in turn, has previously pointed to those programs as evidence of his support for local control.

How much the education proposals of Bullock and Gianforte will influence voters remains to be seen, said Johnson, the political scientist.

“I don’t see Donald Trump talking about education nearly as much compared to other Republicans in recent years. Bush tried to talk about it,” he said, looking at the broader topics driving campaigns nationwide. “I don’t think the electorate is at a place right now where this is as essential to the political discourse as it was in previous cycles.”

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Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.