Guest opinion: Public schools ensure community ownership, local control

2012-12-10T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Public schools ensure community ownership, local control The Billings Gazette
December 10, 2012 12:00 am

In recent public policy discussions regarding the use of public funds to pay for private education in Montana, there are critical facts that are lost in the details.

Using public funds for private education essentially makes “private” education now “public”, only without the accountability, rights and choices made available to the public when interacting with their existing public schools. Each of the following rights or choices under current law would be notably absent if public funds were used to support private schools:

- Your choice of which trustees to vote for and elect to represent the community and oversee how the school district spends taxpayer funds.

- Your choice of whether to support requests for funding and other voted matters required to be placed before the voters by public schools.

- Your right to observe, participate in and challenge the deliberations and decisions of public schools through open meeting laws;

- Your right to know and assess how well the schools you are supporting with your taxes are performing on various standardized measures of student performance. Private schools are exempt assessing and disclosing their performance to the public.

- Your right to enroll your child in a school. Unlike public schools, which are required to serve all resident school-aged children, private schools have the right to deny admission for a variety of reasons that would be unlawful if used as a basis for denial of admission in a public school.

Innovation and options

Montana’s public schools have innovated throughout the state to meet the needs of children in each community. Montana’s school districts are eager to engage their communities in meaningful and thoughtful discussions regarding how to best serve Montana’s school aged population. These discussions have resulted in choices that flourish throughout the state. Open enrollment with no tuition for out of district students in a large majority of our public schools; four-day school week programming; online learning options available through the Montana Digital Academy; courses taken for concurrent high school and college credit; Montessori schools; International Baccalaureate programs; part-time enrollment for home school students; and even religious instruction release time are just a few of the innovations available in Montana’s public schools.

The bedrock principles that promote innovation and choice in Montana’s public schools include:

- Collaboration with parents and taxpayers.

- Accountability to voters through their rights to elect trustees; approve or disapprove discretionary levies; and demand transparency through access to information regarding school performance and expenditures.

- The engagement of classroom teachers and other educators as the sources of both ideas for innovation and delivery of instruction.

- The assurance that all such offerings are provided on a nondiscriminatory basis in pursuit of the full development of the educational potential of each student as required under the Montana Constitution.

With all of the choices available within our accountable statewide system of public schools, why would we sacrifice any, much less all of the benefits for children above by using public funds to pay for private education in any form that lacks the accountability, transparency and voter control present in our public schools?

The short answer is that we should not accept anything less and should in fact be pursuing an increased presence of the voice and role that the public currently enjoys in influencing the decisions of our public schools as they work to serve the children of this state.

This guest opinion was written by a group of six Montana public education leaders: Denise Ulberg, executive director of the Montana Association of School Business Officials; Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT; Dave Puyear, executive director of the Montana Rural Education Association; Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association; Mark Lambrecht, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition; and Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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