Education Greg Gianforte Montana Politics Special Election

Will the MT Press Cover Greg Gianforte’s Discrimination Against Children With Disabilities This Election?

Written by Don Pogreba
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It was unbelievable negligence that the Montana press ignored Greg Gianforte’s support for discriminatory policies against children with disabilities in his first attempt to buy himself political office. As governor with a Republican Legislature, he would have had an enormous opportunity to shift public education dollars to private institutions that explicitly discriminate against students with special needs. Hiding in the Republican refrain about parental choice in education is a clear call for the transfer of money from public schools that accept and educate all students, regardless of their beliefs and special needs, to private schools that discriminate on those same grounds. How the media missed (and refused to report) this obvious story is almost incomprehensible. The impact on our state’s schools could have been devastating—and the public heard almost nothing about it from the press.

Now, the Montana media has another opportunity to talk about the issue, because Mr. Gianforte, while not campaigning in Montana, is running again, this time for the U.S. Congress. Given that the US Department of Education is now headed by a school choice zealot who oversaw the destruction of Michigan’s public schools, it’s critically important that Montana’s voice in Congress offer oversight of federal policy, not a rubber stamp that will allow for dangerous policies to be put in place.

During the governor’s race, Gianforte only ever offered standard Republican talking points about education, but did, in a Billings Gazette story, specifically, call for “less federal overreach” over public schools. Syntactically problematic as that expression is (does he want some overreach?), it demonstrates that Gianforte will work to reduce federal oversight. During her disastrous confirmation hearing as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos specifically argued that protection for disabled students was best left to the states. It seems a reasonable question to ask Mr. Gianforte would be whether he agrees with this position.

Though we have discussed it before on this blog, let’s recap one more time why Gianforte deserves scrutiny on this issue. As the primary funder and visionary behind Petra Academy, he is still listed as a member of its Board of Directors, a position he has held from the beginning at the school. That same document outlines the conditions under which a student can be removed from Petra if a disability is discovered.

  • According to the policy, if a student demands any extra time from the teacher, s/he can be removed.
  • If parents of students with disabilities do not have daily communication with the Petra staff, the student can be removed.
  • If a student cannot complete the work assigned within the same time period as other students, s/he can be removed from the school.

And those are just the start. The full policy on students with disabilities demonstrates a clear effort to exclude students, no matter how minor the disability. Among the conditions that could lead to a student being denied entrance to or removed from Petra Academy is the following list:

Here’s what the Bozeman Public Schools web site says about students with disabilities:

The Bozeman Public Schools special education program is designed to meet the needs of all students who have been identified with an educational disability. The main goal of the program is to provide for appropriate educational services, designed to allow individual students to grow as learners, and to prepare them for transition to life beyond K-12 education. The program is based on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the spirit of which holds the ideal that:

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

The Petra application, which was in place until at least last year, asks parents a series of questions designed to ferret out any sneaky students with disabilities who might try to enter the school. Among the questions, they ask “Has the student ever seen a counselor/doctor/psychiatrist for any type of social, behavioral, or mental problems?” suggesting that the school’s discriminatory policy doesn’t just cover students with disabilities, but students with mental health issues.

It’s astonishing to think that it’s legal to require a student to disclose mental health issues to attend a school. It’s certainly not ethical.

This is a hugely important issue facing the country right now. This is not an attack on Mr. Gianforte’s religious faith, though he’s clearly reading a different version of the New Testament than I am if his Jesus would permit discriminating against a child because he has dyslexia. This isn’t an attack on Mr. Gianforte’s school, which has every right to exist. It’s a question about education policy. As Mother Jones notes, Secretary DeVos wants to shift federal education money to private, religious schools like the one Gianforte has headed for years:

Indeed, critics argue the DeVoses are attempting to expand the definition of “school choice”—typically understood as giving parents the ability to pick any traditional public school or charter school in a district—to allow taxpayer money to follow students to any private school via vouchers. Some critics of school choice argue that charters, which are publicly funded but governed by appointed boards and often run by private companies with varying degrees of state oversight, can skim high-performing students from traditional public schools, leaving them with more high-needs kids and less money. But the push for so-called “universal school choice” could take that a step further by eventually leading to a radical redirection of funds from traditional public schools to private schools, many of which are Christian: Trump’s signature education proposal calls for dedicating $20 billion in federal money to help families move away from what he has called our “failing government schools” and instead choose charter, private, or religious schools.

Knowing where Mr. Gianforte stands on these issues and demanding an explanation for how his school has excluded students is a critical question in this election, just as it should have been in the last one.

Mr. Gianforte got a free pass from the press when it came to how he would have helped manage Montana’s public schools as governor. He got a free pass for supporting, if not writing, an incredibly discriminatory document that certainly, at a minimum, discouraged parents of students with disabilities from applying to his private school. The failure to cover his support for school choice as a policy and discrimination as a practice was an abrogation of the responsibility of the press to inform voters about candidates and how their policies would have affected our local schools.

The press has another chance because Mr. Gianforte is back—and his support for these policies is still in place. Will someone please ask him the questions?

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

7 Comments

  • Are you trying to create an issue? I don’t think it’ll gain any traction.

    As far as campaigning goes – lat night on the news I saw two anti-Quist ads, and one with Gianforte promoting himself – and nothing from the Dems. Thus far Quist is a non-starter.

      • I can’t disagree with you Pogie – I dislike attack ads too, but the sad fact of the matter is that they work. Look at Bullocks campaign, with the tired voice calling Gianforte “the millionaire from New Jersey who wants to be Governor of Montana” that we heard every two minutes on the radio.

        And that was for a race that Bullock wasn’t going to lose.

        This is kind of a low-importance race to both parties – as one vote in the House isn’t going to make a difference over the next 18 months, but I was hoping for an interesting race.

  • The question I have is whether Gianforte supports what appears to be Trump’s philosophy on people with disabilities. Remember when Trump mocked a NY Times reporter with disabilities? Xeni Jardin believes it reflects his contempt for anyone with any sort of physical deformity, and his belief that he won the genetic lottery. See: https://twitter.com/xeni

    If you step back and look at the big picture with the recent Republican health care proposal, ignoring all their attempts to frame it as something Jesus would do, it looks like an effort to simply abandon the weak, to let them die. According to Xeni Jardin, who is a cancer survivor, and whose life was saved by Obamacare, this isn’t just stupidity. It’s policy. Trump believes in eugenics, culling out the genetically inferior, eliminating their genes from the population.

    She’s collecting a lot of evidence to back it up, and frankly it is terrifying, recalling the efforts of you-know-who.

    Gianforte is embracing Trump this time around, and, with this post, I’m wondering if he is also going to back Trump (and Ryan) on abandoning the weak to sickness and death.

    Lots of irony here. Gianforte claims to be a Christian, to the point of disgracing himself and abandoning science and embracing Creationism, and yet he seems oblivious to how Jesus healed the sick and took the side of the weak. In keeping with his religious fundamentalism, Gianforte is an advocate of “Christian” science, a fake science built around denying what Darwin proved long ago; and so, is he also, as Xeni Jardin insists Trump is, an advocate of the fake science of eugenics?

    Everything I have seen says he’s going to be goose stepping right along with Trump’s health care policy.

    • Well Wade, the GOP could simply sit on their hands and watch Obamacare’s death spiral. Is that what you would rather see?

      • There is no evidence that it is in a “death spiral,” and a great deal of evidence that those who say it is are making it up to destroy it. Obamacare is flawed, and I would prefer Medicare for all, but it is a huge improvement over what preceded it, and an even larger improvement over what Republicans are proposing, which is basically to let the sick and the poor die without costing them anything.

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