Guest opinion: Just say no to public funding for private schools

2013-03-23T00:10:00Z Guest opinion: Just say no to public funding for private schoolsBy FRANKE WILMER The Billings Gazette
March 23, 2013 12:10 am  • 

This session in Helena we’ve heard a lot of bills that bear a striking similarity to model bills from the legislative agenda of the corporate bill-mill ALEC. Whether a bill is an ALEC model bill, whether its subject is just high on the ALEC agenda, or whether it was written by a former ALEC member like the National Association of Charter Schools, a bad idea driven mainly by out-of-state interests is still a bad idea driven mainly by out-of-state interests.

What’s particularly sinister about pouring so much money into state legislatures to get these pro-corporate bills passed is the payoff and punishment underbelly of ALEC and other corporate-sponsored groups. Cooperating legislators will be rewarded with huge campaign donations that enable them to prevail over any opponent funded by regular people; and noncooperative legislators will find themselves faced with an extremely well funded primary or general election opponent.

Another half-dozen bills propose to dramatically raise or altogether eliminate restrictions on corporate contributions to campaigns. A perfect storm: corporate-funded campaigns to legislators who will carry out a corporate agenda.

National agenda

What all of these bills have in common is that none addresses a problem we have in Montana. They are aimed at carrying out a national agenda. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the six-pack of so-called “school choice” bills. One even gives tax credits to corporations. Now if you ask Montanans whether they think it would be good to have more “school choices” they might say “yes,” hence the slick designer language. But if you ask most Montanans whether they think we should cut public education funding and give taxpayer dollars to private, mostly religious schools, most would adamantly say “no!” And that’s what each of these bills does.

If you “choose” to take your kid out, you can take your taxes out, too. But what about childless couples, single Montana taxpayers, and people whose kids have grown? Why shouldn’t they get a rebate, too? Because public education is a public good that benefits all of us.

Our public school teachers are already innovative and rightly insulted by the false notion that our schools are boot camps grinding out cookie cutter educated students. Montana already has public charter schools and other innovative programs — 57 of them serving more than 1,500 students. These public charter schools have certified teachers, are overseen by elected school boards, and guided by statewide standards through the Board of Public Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction. None of this is true for the proposed private charter schools, which is why they are likely still unconstitutional.

Constitutional principle

The Montana constitution specifically prohibits taxpayer revenue going to sectarian schools.

Montana is not Chicago or D.C. Our dropout rate is 4.1 percent — down from 5.2 percent since Superintendent Denise Juneau initiated her Graduation Matters program. Montana students consistently earn top scores in nationally standardized tests of proficiency in math and science. Yes, where there is poverty there is underperformance, and that is true all over the U.S. Graduation Matters targets those students, too, with great success.

You want private schools? Fine. Just don’t ask for taxpayer money to support them.

Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman, has served four terms on the House Education committee. She is a professor at Montana State University.

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