Education Montana Politics

Schweitzer and Brown Weigh in on Education: Neither Very Specific, One Not Very Credible

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The Billings Gazette offered Governor Schweitzer and Senator Brown the opportunity to address education funding in the state of Montana, and each offered answers to the following questions:

  • Do you think the state education-funding system is fulfilling its mandate?
  • How have you as governor or state legislator worked to fulfill the education-funding mandate while balancing the state budget?
  • What changes – if any – do you propose that the 2009 Legislature make in how Montana funds its K-12 schools?

In general, I found their responses disappointingly vague. Both rely primarily on waving the magic wand of economic development to better fund our schools, but that’s not an answer—it’s a hope. It’s not as if the state of Montana, the legislature, businesses and workers in the state haven’t been doing their level best to productivity and income, and while promising economic development is an appealing sound bite, it’s not a policy that the schools can count on.

Neither piece addresses the continuing damage done by one-time, rather than sustained, funding for the schools; neither mentions the absolute necessity to provide better educational opportunities for students who live in poverty and those who live on the reservations; neither mentions plans to work with the school boards who are suing the state for more funding; neither mentions plans raise Montana teacher salaries, which still linger near the bottom of the nation. These are the hard questions our political leaders should answer.

In his piece, Senator Brown does what he has done so well in this campaign: pretend to be an advocate of education while throwing enough rhetorical bones to anti-education base in his party. He refers to giving more money to the schools “as throwing more money” at the problem, wonders why the state is being sued again, all before making vague appeals to increase the money available for education by increasing development.

Brown suggests that the state could have resolved the issue of school funding with the recent surpluses:

With the historic tax surpluses in the last four years, we’ve squandered a great opportunity to address the issue.

Pardon my ignorance, but don’t Brown and his running mate advocate giving the entirety of the surplus back to the taxpayers? And wasn’t Brown in the Legislature for the last session, certainly an opportunity to have suggested such a remedy? He certainly sounded like he had done a great deal of thinking about the subject of education funding :

But House Republican Leader Roy Brown of Billings said there’s no doubt that the budget will change as the 2005 Legislature wrestles with the school funding problem.

"Whether it’s $30 million or $5 million or $100 million, I don’t know," Brown said.

In the 2007 session, Brown didn’t exactly lead the fight to help Montana schools. The bills he introduced that were more important to him than education issues? Securing loads on the highway to prevent litter, attacking the governor, and allowing people to carry switchblades. Seriously.

And, that, in the final analysis, is why Montanans who care about public education cannot trust Roy Brown to deliver for the schools. He’s not interested in the subject, and he represents a party hostile to the schools. While I may have some disagreement with Governor Schweitzer’s approach and believe we need to make a more substantial commitment to education than he does, it’s clear that he and the Democratic Party are certainly stronger advocates for the schools than Roy Brown will ever be.  As Schweitzer writes:

But economic development in such areas does not guarantee future investment in education as some would have you believe. That can only come if we have a governor dedicated to education, who advances sound funding proposals, and a Legislature that appropriates the funds.

Anyone who believes that the Montana Republican Party will appropriate adequate funding for the schools just hasn’t been paying attention for the past twenty years. I have no doubt that Roy Brown wants to dramatically increase some forms of economic development in Montana; I just don’t have any reason that he will fight to spend those revenues (if they materialize) on our schools.

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.

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