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?