More than 150 people heard views Wednesday on public education ranging from a state senator saying “dark money” is anonymously trying to destroy the state’s public education system to a discussion of the return of every dollar the state invests in that system.
At the inaugural Hi-Line Economic Summit, Lt. Gov. Angela McLean, a former educator herself and former chair of the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education, moderated a panel on education.
The panel comprised:
• Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad;
• Montana State University-Northern Dean of the College of Technical Sciences Greg Kegel;
• Northern Dean of the College of Education, Arts and Sciences, and Nursing Christine Shearer-Cremean;
• Montana Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman;
• Blaine County Superintendent of Schools Terry Brockie.
In her remarks, McLean said nothing has a higher return on investment than education. While the last Legislature made a significant investment in both K-12 and higher education, she said, the state needs to continue to invest.
“You talk about return on investment, return on investment, return on investment and return on investment,” she said, “there is no better place for it than investing in public education in the great state of Montana, ladies and gentlemen.”
She referred to a comment Gov. Steve Bullock made during his lunchtime presentation about his Main Street Montana Project, that the state should provide a continuum of education for people from their childhood through adult life.
She also reiterated one of his other points, that Montana should provide early childhood education.
McLean said Montana is one of eight states in the nation that doesn’t fund prekindergarten education. The benefits of that extend beyond children doing better in school, she said. For every dollar spent on early childhood education, the state saves $7 to $9 down the road, McLean said.
“That makes sense folks,” she said. “This is not just a social issue. This is not just an educational issue. Ladies and gentlemen, this is fundamentally an economic issue.”
‘Dark money’ and public education
Sen. Jones, who has been honored by the Montana Rural Education Association with its Legislative Leadership Award, successfully sponsored a bill last session touted as the most significant education funding revision in decades. The bill had broad-based support from Montana school districts and professional education associations.
But, Jones, who is running for re-election this year, said Wednesday, other groups do not support public education in Montana — groups using dark money to target education supporters.
Jones said 22 of the 50 Senate districts are decided in the Republican primary — Republicans are statistically certain to win the general election. The same is true for Democrats in 20 districts, he said.
And groups are targeting the primaries, including spending money to oust supporters of public education, he said, adding that, in Montana, it doesn’t take much.
“Let’s face it folks,” Jones said. “We’re a low population state. We’re a cheap date …
“(We have) groups upon groups upon groups spending money in Montana,” he said. “We don’t know who’s in them, we just know they are spending money in Montana. The name doesn’t mean much, there was 130 last time, I think, because I can be whatever name I want. I can be Unwed Teenage Mothers, whatever isn’t used.”
And a result is people from the extremes — on both the left and right — are being elected, and compromise is disappearing. He said that is evident with Washington, D.C., “Gridlock and chaos. I’d like to see it stay in D.C.”
Some of those people don’t support public education, Jones said, adding that they don’t even call them public schools, they call them “government schools.”
“A certain group of (the people elected are) not public education-friendly, not even sort of,” Jones said. “They see it as a problem, not a solution.”
He suggested two solutions — people need to be involved in the primaries, and if they support public education, they need to elect people who support it.
The other is for public education to do a better job selling itself, he said.
“If it doesn’t, it will continually be a target,” Jones said. “It’s going to be shot down.”
A return on investment
Deputy State Superintendent Parman, a former Havre Public Schools superintendent, talked about the return on dollars invested in K12 education.
“I’m going to really try to tie dollar values to education,” he said.
He said he doubted that anyone would argue that the higher the education level of a person, the higher their pay will be.
He said it doesn’t work to talk to students about annual income or their 40-year total income.
“They talk about how much they make per hour,” Parman said. “12 bucks, no diploma, after being in the workforce five years. … On the other end, you have the opportunity to further your education, do the right things for yourself now while you’re in high school, and it can be close to $65, $70 an hour, and that’s just five years into the workforce with that grad degree.”
He added that the gap between the earnings of someone without a diploma and someone with a diploma continues to widen.
That is very alarming in a state where a student can drop out at age 16 — a very agrarian concept but still on the books in Montana, Parman said.
He touted a project of his boss, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau’s, Graduation Montana. Parman said that is a private-public partnership to reduce high school dropouts. No tax dollars are being used in that project, he said. Juneau is going into school districts and talking to educators, business owners and residents to find ways to keep students in school.
“We have watched the graduation rate increase over the last four years from 80 percent to 84 percent,” he said.
That means 500 fewer students are dropping out, Parman said.
“For the state of Montana, ongoing, from this year moving forward, with 500 fewer kids dropping out of high school a year across the state, the annual ongoing economic value of that to the state of Montana is $4.3 million,” he said.
In terms of housing, those 500 kids add $5.1 million a year, and another $600,000 in auto sales, he said.
“So there’s value, there’s economic value to making sure we work with all of those kids,” Parman said.
Finding students to make successes at Northern
Dean Kegel said he can give story after story about the success of Nothern students, citing a visit by a senior vice president at General Electric — who graduated from Havre’s university.
He said the problem now is finding the students — the same kind and number of people who used to come to Northern “are not gravitating to our doors,” Kegel said.
Northern is working to try to solve that, including using articulation agreements to attract students from two-year technical colleges and tribal colleges and reaching across the border to recruit students from Canada, Kegel said.
He said he does have some good news, as well.
“On the back side, we’re having a problem because we don’t have enough graduates,” he said.
At a recent career fair, companies were offering more than 1,000 positions to Northern graduates, Kegel said, adding that he has a list of 1,000 more on his computer.
“We are looking at 10 jobs right now for all of our graduates,” Kegel said, adding, “We’ve always been partnered up with industry but never more partnered up than now.
“They get it, but they also know they need our product and they are helping us,” he said.
His counterpart on the other half of the campus, Dean Shearer-Cremean, who started in 2012, said Northern “is one of the more interesting campuses I have been at.”
The range of degrees, from certificates to master’s degrees, along with the rural background and nontraditional nature of many of Northern’s students, is unique, she said.
Shearer-Cremean said she has some concerns about how performance-based university funding could be implemented. The metrics used should focus on the campus’ mission, and Northern has a unique mission, she said, and should have some differences in the metrics used.
That also applies to program duplication, she said. While universities should avoid duplication where possible, some of Northern’s students don’t plan to leave the area, and programs are needed for them even if they are duplicated in Billings or Bozeman or Missoula.
She said she believes Northern is perfectly poised to help the economic expansion of the Hi-Line and is moving toward finding its niche.
Some of that already is true, with many of the programs in the College of Technical Sciences and with growth of programs like the criminal justice degree on her side of the campus, Shearer-Cremean said.
“It becomes a destination campus,” she said.
The value of education
Superintendent Brockie, who taught before being appointed to his position, said he brings a perspective of what education can mean to the students.
“I kind of represent the kid in the trench” he said.
One of the issues is teaching the children what the opportunities are right on the Hi-Line, including with modern technology, which the students know better than many adults, Brockie said.
That includes workers and business owners reaching out to the students in the schools and showing what they do, and what the students need to learn to be able to do that, Brockie said.
Brockie, a member of the Fort Belknap Indian Community at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, said his grandparents and parents were able to work and save money, including his father being a farm implement dealer. That helped raise their standard of living and, in turn, his own, Brockie said.
“I want that for all of our children, and it starts with education,” he said.
And that includes teaching the students and teaching them what they can do with their education, he added.
“I don’t want to leave this place, but I want to have opportunities for my children,” Brockie said.