The incoming chair of the state House of Representatives Education Committee has some issues she wants to look at for the future of Montana education, but the likely state Superintendent of Public Education says pushing for changes on those issues would be a mistake.
Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, said in an interview last week that she wants to look at some things when she takes over as chair of the committee, including loosening the state government’s grip on details of local school operation, and finding ways to give parents more choices in how to educate their children.
“I am not willing to fund the status quo any longer, ” she said. “We have to be able to broaden our horizons in some respects. ”
Superintendent Denise Juneau said she doesn’t see why the system needs to be changed.
“I always ask, ‘What’s broken that needs to be fixed? ’” she said.
Juneau, a Democrat, is coming off of a very close election, defeating Republican candidate Sandy Welch by 2,231 votes, 235,397 to 233,166.
Welch has said she intends to call for a recount. She has until Monday to make that request.
Hansen said the fact that the election was so close means that Welch’s message of parental choice, local control and school accountability resonated with voters, and she wants to look at those ideas in the next legislative session.
Trading funding for local control
Hansen said one problem she has with the status quo is the amount of detail in the updated school accreditation standards approved by the state Board of Public Education in September.
Those standards, in her opinion, have little to do with education but a lot to do with reducing local control, Hansen said.
She said that she would consider K-12 public school funding increase requests made by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Office of Public Instruction, but some changes in the regulations would have to happen in exchange. She added that she also is willing to budget money to help better train and increase the capabilities of local school boards as part of loosening OPI’s grip.
“I am willing to consider some of those spending increases, but in order to do that, there has to be some flexibility, ” she said.
Juneau said she disagrees that the new accreditation standards reduce local control. The new standards actually go the other direction, she said. And the basics of the education — setting curriculum, selecting textbooks, hiring administrators and teachers — still is in the hands of the local boards, she said.
The new accreditation standards came after a review of standards by a large task force including representatives of school districts, the university system and parents organizations. Montana schools generally have supported the updated standards, Juneau added.
One of the changes in the new standards allows local schools to request variances to the regulations, she said. If a school district can show that it is achieving good results, it can request OPI to allow it to differ from the standard regulations.
“What was revised puts even more authority into local schools, ” Juneau said.
More choices for parents, communities
Hansen said one area she wants to look closely at is increasing the choices for parents. She said she is concerned about students who drop out, or who end up with D or F averages when they attend Montana schools.
“Those kids are falling through the cracks in the public system, ” Hansen said.
One possibility to increase choice is to set up a program allowing charter schools in the state, she said. Hansen said the idea of a charter school is that a district writes up a charter — essentially a business plan — describing how it will operate a school. The school could focus on specific areas, such as a highly successful school in St. Louis that focuses on contracting and construction, while providing a quality education, she said.
The state teacher’s union, MEA-MFT, has risen in opposition to the idea, and is putting out false information, Hansen added. One is that the charter schools would be private — she said they would not. Another is the idea that union members could not teach at the charter schools. Hansen said members of MEA-MFT would be welcome to apply to teach at the charter schools, and that she hoped that they would.
“This is misinformation bordering on lying, ” she said.
She said she also wants to look at ways to help people who want to follow other options. One would be to allow people to use contributions to organizations that provide scholarships to private schools as a credit against their Montana taxes.
Another is creating education savings accounts. In such an account, a parent could request OPI to place a percentage of the money that would be budgeted for a student’s education in public schools in a savings account. The remainder still would go to the public school the student would have attended.
The parent then could use the savings account to pay for an alternate education, such as a private school or correspondence or online courses, Hansen said, although it could not be used for homeschooling. If the entire amount in the account is not used for the student’s K-12 education, the remainder possibly could be held to use to pay for the student’s college expenses.
“I think that that is not only a boon for the kids and the parents but also to the university system, and for the state of Montana, frankly, ” Hansen said.
She said that the Montana public education system has done, and still does, a good job. But, it started in an agrarian age, went through an industrial age and now is in the technological age, and is in the midst of new, innovative ideas. Some changes have to be made, Hansen said, including making sure the potential of each student is reached rather than letting a percentage of them slip through the cracks.
“That’s where I think most Montanans want to go with (education), ” she said, adding, “We can do better than a bell curve. ”
Juneau: Choice already is there
Juneau said the choices already exist — including rules already on the books allowing the creation of charter schools. However, she noted, no district in the state has applied to create a charter school.
She opposes legislating changes that would create charter schools that receive public money but don’t answer to state standards.
“It takes the governance out of the hands of the Board of Public Education, ” Juneau said.
She said setting up tax credits or OPI accounts for alternate education could create many problems, including constitutionality. The Montana Constitution expressly forbids “any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies” for use in a sectarian school.
That could apply to the education savings accounts, Juneau said.
“I would be worried about the Constitutionality of that anyway in our state, knowing that it’s public money, ” she said, adding that tax credits for scholarship donations would remove it a step, but she still would argue it is unconstitutional.
She said local school districts already use many options to provide education in a variety of ways, including districts with Montressori schools, districts switching schools to four-day class weeks, health occupation academies and districts working with home schools.
“So, when I look across the state, you talk about charters, what could they do that we do not already do? ” Juneau asked, adding, “I’m not anti-choice … but I don’t think our public money should go to private schools. ”