As I travel around Montana, I often speak with teachers, professors, and students concerned about the cost and ability to access quality education. Rural communities know that a public school in their town is a tent-pole for the community. Once a rural area loses a school in their town, the community really starts to struggle. It is also difficult to recruit teachers to Montana’s schools because by some measures Montana has the lowest starting pay for a new teacher.
As a teacher myself, I know the value of education. My father used to tell me while I may not give you much in terms of wealth, what I can give you is something you will take with you wherever you go: a quality education. That has served me well because unbeknownst to me I ended up on the other side of the world from where I was born.
As the federal government cuts budgets for education, Montana’s schools get less and less funding to provide quality education to our students. More local school boards face either cutting budgets and therefore the quality of the education provided to its students or asking for more funding at the local level. The result of which is a tax increase on local communities. Counties are asking for more out of taxpayers to make up for shortfalls in funding from the federal government.
This tax shift disproportionately affects rural counties and states like Montana because we no longer have other wealthier states helping to pick up the tab for those costs. It means that it becomes harder for us to recruit quality teachers and makes it more likely that schools in rural areas will consolidate or fold altogether.
This is why I am puzzled that Secretary Betsy DeVos requested $7.1 billion less in the 2020 federal budget for the Department of Education until I realized it is to finance her school voucher program where public money would be diverted to send children to private schools. DeVos was confirmed by the narrowest of margins needing Steve Daines’ vote to be confirmed and now she could face jail after a federal judge found she violated a 2018 court order by siding with fraudulent for-profit colleges to go after students harmed by their predatory practices.
To prepare Montana’s children for the future, we need to make big investments in our education system and that includes helping rural areas and states provide a quality education to our students today. It includes helping to raise pay for teachers willing to teach in rural areas, it includes having budgets that are healthy enough so that teachers do not have to buy supplies out of their own pockets, and it includes ensuring that the quality of a child’s education is not determined by where they grew up.
Wilmot Collins was elected mayor of Helena in 2017. He is a Navy Reserve, Army Reserve and National Guard veteran, former adjunct professor at Helena College, child protection specialist, and refugee from Liberia who fled from civil war and arrived in Helena in 1994.