A Lot of Words, A Lot of Reasons Why Rick Hill and the Republicans Are Wrong on “School Choice”

I’ve been planning to write for some time about the Republican effort to privatize public education in Montana, but it’s only tonight that I’ve had the time to sit down and really think about just how intellectually bankrupt Republican proposals for “school choice” in Montana really are. The truth is that what Republicans are proposing for Montana’s schools is more than a political stunt; if enacted, they would be a disaster for our students and our schools.

Montana Has Become a Battleground

A couple of weeks ago, Myers Reece at the Flathead Beacon wrote an important story about the push for privatized education in Montana. As many as 40 legislators from Montana attended an event in Missoula which promoted the “school choice” movement in Montana.

In practical terms, “school choice” means providing tax breaks for families who pull their kids from public schools, either to attend charter schools or private schools, both of which are far less regulated than their traditional public counterparts.

The Wild, Wild West of Public Education

Montana Republicans are absolutely sold on this model. It’s a part of their party platform, has been endorsed by Rick Hill with his typical dearth of specifics, and rears its ugly head every legislative session.

Of course, the bills proposed in the last session by Republicans Dave Lewis of Helena and James Knox of Billings demonstrated the same kind of care we came to expect from Republican legislators. Neither bill required that the “schools” involved be accredited or even schools, except in the loosest sense of the term. Neither required that the “schools” involved follow relevant federal and state regulations regarding education. Neither listed requirements about student-teacher ratios.

Given that Senator Lewis has already submitted a similar draft for the 2013 session and Rick Hill’s stated support for school choice, there is a real chance that Montana students could face the reality of a “school choice” atmosphere. What might it look like?

It Would Be A Failure and a Disaster for Montana Students

Probably the best reason to reject charter schools is that there is no evidence that they work. A Mathematica study of 2,300 students across 15 states found that “charter schools did not significantly affect most of the other outcomes examined, including attendance, student behavior, and survey-based measures of student effort in school.”

Despite claims of increased accountability, a study by proponents of charter schools found that few are ever closed for poor performance, despite claims that charters will be more accountable.

They even spend more money on administration than traditional public schools.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that charter schools would be ineffective and waste money. The kind of unregulated charter school/school choice Montana Republicans are pursuing would be a disaster for Montana students.

Perhaps most troublingly, private companies are likely to put profits ahead of actually educating children.  In Michigan, 80% of charter schools are run by for-profit corporations and the experience of Florida demonstrates what that can mean for students. The Miami Herald reports:

By design, charter schools are unshackled from many of the bureaucratic rules of traditional public schools….

While this freewheeling system has minimized the oversight of school districts, it has given rise to a cottage industry of professional charter school management companies that — along with the landlords and developers who own and build schools — control the lion’s share of charter schools’ money.

At some financially weak schools, tight budgets have forced administrators to cut corners. The cash-strapped Balere Language Academy in South Miami Heights taught its seventh-grade students in a toolshed, records show. The Academy of Arts and Minds in Coconut Grove went weeks without textbooks. Schools have also been accused of using illegal tactics to bring in more money—charging students illegal fees for standard classes, or faking attendance records to earn more tax dollars, court records show.”

Even if private corporations won’t come to Montana, their terrible online schools certainly will. How about having your for-profit charter school conducted online with 60:1 student teacher ratios? The New York Times explored this model, exposing the very profitable K12Inc, which is “educating” 200,000 children nationwide.  Unfortunately, that’s not working out too well for the states paying for this model or the students taking the classes:

Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

Another danger is that the kind of privatization Montana Republicans are calling for will lead to direct religious instruction at taxpayer expense.

Talking Points Memo offered an instructive example of what kind of education Montanans might receive if they fall for this scheme in its discussion of the Shekinah Learning Institute, which took $17 million to educate “at-risk children,” but spending a great deal of money on religious instruction and church expenses.

That Jeff Laszloffy is behind the movement for privatized education in Montana should make it clear that we can expect that kind of instruction in Montana, too, if Hill’s plan comes to fruition. Taxpayer dollars simply should not be spent to promote a particular religion or teach that evolution didn’t happen. Mr. Laszloffy’s children can call themselves “valedictorians” of the Laszloffy School all they want; Montana taxpayers just shouldn’t have to pay for the damage that’s being done.

Even when charter schools seem successful, the results are often illusory. How can a school or corporation inflate the academic results of their students? With a good old-fashioned combination of segregation, exclusion of students with disabilities, and misreporting data.

Professor Myron Orfield says that “ charters are an engine of racial segregation. They are more segregated than public schools and cause public schools to be more segregated than they otherwise would be,” and the available data support his claim.

Charter schools also have fewer students with disabilities, which is one of the ways they can do the most damage to public schools. Students with disabilities require greater resources, and if charter schools are allowed to restrict their admittance, pressure will increase on public schools.

Charter schools are more likely to being involved in dishonest test scores,

Not Here in Montana

Even former proponents of school choice have acknowledged that the movement seems based far more on over-promising results than actually achieving results for students.

 “If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric.” Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as “stalled,” in part by the fact that many “new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally,” and in part because results in Milwaukee were not “as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped.” Likewise, Peterson argues, “the jury on charter schools is still out.”

As Frederick Hess notes, school choice programs probably do improve educational outcomes in urban neighborhoods blighted with terrible schools and decades of mismanagement. That’s simply not the reality in Montana, where despite Republican efforts to demonize teachers and public education, our students outperform the nation as a whole on every measure of educational outcomes, while spending less per student than many states.

There are certainly areas of improvement for Montana schools, but defunding them to pay for unaccredited, unaccountable institutions who are quite likely to put profitability and/or ideology ahead of education certainly isn’t a way to achieve better results.

It’s time for Montana Republicans to offer serious proposals for educational reform. We all want better schools. If Mr. Hill wants to be taken seriously as an education reformer, he needs to start telling us something substantive. Repeating catchphrases like “choice” and “freedom” is far from the mature and responsible leadership Mr. Hill is touting as the reason we should vote for him.


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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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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  • Don: School choice leads to competition and competition improves quality. Public schools do not work for everyone and the same with private schools. Competition can improve the system. We have to do better if we are to compete in this world economy. If parents do not believe they are getting a good product for their child then they look at another option. Outstanding teachers can seek better conditions and compensation in a competitive system. It is coming through the efforts of private sector individuals who are personally putting up money for scholarships. I want to see every child have the opportunity to find the educational experience that fits them best.

    • The research says you’re wrong. It’s just as likely, if not more, to lead to a race to the bottom, one that denies equal opportunity to students who are disabled, poor, or otherwise disadvantaged.

      • Can you actually point to this research, or do you just rely on it existing in your head?

        Just anecdotally, those home school kids sure seem to be winning a lot of spelling bees… 🙂

        Do you really think a parent is going to take their child out of a public school just for the tax break so they can enroll them in one that makes them dumber? Are you seriously saying we should not let children enroll in private or religious schools because that’s somehow discriminatory to disabled or poor children? I fail to see the logic…

        • Spelling bees?? Really? THAT’S your argument??? Spelling bees? Too funny, dude. But the problem IS that spelling is one of the FEW subjects ignernt, christofascists CAN school junior in at home! But for the record there, timmy, please list a number of parents that YOU think are qualified to teach math, physics, biology, numerous foreign languages, music, art, etc. at home,! It ain’t happenin’, dude. You and lewis’s arguments are simply laffable. BTW, dude, spelling is HIGHLY overrated! With the advent of spellcheck, it’s obelete! See many jobs listed for speller? Speller wanted? bhwhahahahaaa! Sorry to laff.

          You see, the ONLY reason that spelling matters is for the students who study languages and their origins. THEN it counts. That’s all. But then, that’s all part of a good liberal arts education, which is the foundation for all OTHER educations!

          • p.s. And to lewis and timmy, you little fascists LUV attacking soft targets like teachers. Hey, it’s what you do best. And that’s real sad, but very symptomatic of who you are! There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with education in Montana, and that makes you wet yourselves with anger! Tuff noogies, dudes!

            But for the record, study ANY event in history where the rightwing was ascendant, and you’ll find the exact same thing! I know you boys don’t LIKE stuff like history, but it’s true. Maybe you can find some glenda BECK quote somewhere to refute that fact…….bahwhhwhhahahaaa!

        • One thing students will at least learn in public schools is what links are. Click on any of those in the post and you’ll see “research.”

          Still haven’t seen any from the other side.

          Instead, we get ideological attacks on unions and vague buzzwords like freedom.

          Surely, two decades of charter schools can provide at least some evidence to support them.

        • “Do you really think a parent is going to take their child out of a public school just for the tax break so they can enroll them in one that makes them dumber?”

          The answer to that is an unmitigated “Yes”. Take those people that are removing their children from public schools because public schools teach the evils of evolution or that the earth is more than 6,000 years old. Those parents are certainly removing their children from a school to indoctrinate them in education that makes them dumber. Koopman is a perfect example of just how much dumber they can get.

    • Dave – the problem is that it’s not a fair competition. The kids that go to charter schools are going to be kids whose parents give enough of a dam* to send them to charter schools, and I can guarantee you they won’t be kids with disabilities or who are at risk.

      Why? Because it is nearly impossible to make money on those students. Take a straightforward look at the money spend per pupil by public schools, and it looks outrageous. But a huge portion of that money goes to spending on disabled and at-risk students. Encourage charter schools to take the students they want (the more cost-effective ones), and you’ll not only see a spike in per-student spending (because there will be a higher proportion of students who require a high investment), but you’ll see a corresponding languishing of educational culture, because many of the ‘best’ students, those who motivate their colleagues and teachers, will be gone.

      And an even bigger problem – stratification will also increase. Take those kids with all the advantages, put them in charter schools, and you’re not only depriving the public schools of their star students and the money they bring in, but you are depriving those students of any interaction with those whose abilities or life situations are vastly different from theirs. Is that the sort of stratification we need more of?

      *I recently read that dam is actually the original word used in the saying, meaning a coin of very little value.

    • Dave,

      I would start by saying “Bullcrap” to your assersion that school choice leads to competition. It doesn’t. Not to belabor the obvious, but Public Schools don’t have to “compete”. They are run by both National and State Standards they have to meet. A private school is only in competition with other private schools. “Competition” will not improve the system and maintaining that it will only invalidates anything else you would say about the situation. Your entire argument is based on a fallacy.

      • The facts show that public school spending has tripled, on average, per pupil since the 1970s, and we have more kids dropping out. Private schools easily beat public schools in most categories for testing of math and reading.

        Additionally, unions bloat the costs of public schools, continue a system of no accountability for teachers who suck at their jobs, and during an economic downturn teachers have safer jobs, better retirement and health care, and still demand raises year after year. Maybe Republicans don’t like the idea of the $4.5 trillion unfunded liability education in MT has created or having so much public money go straight to unions which then sends the moneys straight to Democrats.

        Who could blame them?

        • Alright, I’ll give you a really simple formula for increasing results and cutting costs. Want to hear it?

          Disallow disabled students from enrolling, or at least don’t offer them any services that aren’t cost-efficient.

          Require parents to attend two conferences with administration and teachers a year. I said REQUIRE.

          Place students on probation if they fail one class; after two, expel them.

          Expel any student convicted of a crime.

          Expel any student found using drugs, tobacco or alcohol on school grounds.

          Expel any female student who is pregnant. Expel any male student who impregnates another student.

          Suspend students for violations of dress code, swearing in school, and any instance of insubordination.

          Expel any student who commits more than one disciple infraction resulting in suspension.

          That’s all it would take to, on the surface, improve results and slash costs. Public schools don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t, take these steps: they are bad for society as a whole, bad for the students, but ultimately good for test scores and the bottom line. Accordingly, private schools regularly implement some or all of these steps, and then leave public schools to pick up the slack they don’t want to deal with.

    • I have. I took my AP Language students to see it two years ago when it was in theaters and have used it in class since then.

      I think it’s a well-made film, but intellectually dishonest. It’s great for classroom discussion, though.

  • Don,

    Why is it that when you go to a grocery store you have 10 different choices but when it comes to sending your child to school you have only one? Why are parents allowed to shop for preschools and colleges but when it comes to K-12 they aren’t smart enough to decide where their kids should go to school? If kids learn in different ways, auditory, visually, kinesthetically, etc. than why do we continue to educate everyone the same way over and over again?
    Look at a cell phone you owned 5-10 years ago and than look at one you own today. Why are they so different. More importantly, why is it that children today are taught almost exactly the same way they were 30 years ago? Competition forces improvement. Get better or go away. Your only argument is to say that parents are too stupid to decide where their kids are best suited to go to school. I have more faith than that in my fellow Montanans.

    • My only argument is that ” parents are too stupid to decide where their kids are best suited to go to school”? Fascinating, since I didn’t make that claim.

      I do think some parents would make bad choices, either because of ideology or lack of knowledge. They absolutely have that right (and Montana has robust, open home school laws). They don’t have the right, though, to demand that taxpayers pay for it.

      What’s more, I hope you’ll actually read my post. There are a number of significant problems with the “school choice” model, but none more important than that it simply hasn’t succeeded. The evidence is clear.

      Finally, if you think students are being taught the same way as they were thirty years ago, I think it would be great if you spent more time in schools today.

  • You don’t have to make the argument, progressives always think they are better at deciding what is best for all of us little people. If Social Security, joining a union, healthcare, etc. are great ideas than why are people forced to participate…you don’t have to answer, I’ll answer for you, because those of us that would chose not too are too stupid to realize how great they are for us. If these things are so wonderful wouldn’t people choose to engage on their own? Catch my drift?
    Second, if there is no benefit to private school than why does our president send his kids to one of the most prestigious private schools in America? Why does our congress send their kids to private schools at a rate of 4 to 1 higher than average Americans? http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2007/09/how-members-of-congress-practice-private-school-choice
    Moreover, people that do not share your ideology or knowledge, in addition to those that home school are taxpayers themselves, simply because they do not adhere to your ideas on education does not mean they must relinquish their right to taxpayer dollars.
    Even if there weren’t evidence to show that students in private school do better than those in public school, here is no evidence to show that private schools turn out students worse than public schools. Studies that show comparable results between public and private schools are not a valid claim that they do not work, simply that they work equally.
    Simply telling me to spend more time in a school does nothing to show any significant changes that have taken place.

    • I don’t really understand why an argument with a conservative needs to devolve into the same kind of nonsense that characterizes the top of your response, but I don’t think I have suggested you are “stupid” or a “little person.” I’m just trying to have a disagreement with you.

      As for the members of Congress, I have two answers. One is that D.C. schools are (and have been) a complete disaster. In my initial post, I acknowledged that charters might be an answer in places like that, which Montana is not. Secondly, members of Congress are sending their children to elite, expensive schools that will still be out of reach of Montana families with the passage of any of these bills. The only people who will be able to take advantage of that will be those who are already quite wealthy.

      Finally, you argue that we should adopt the proposal despite a lack of evidence. That’s hardly sensible, pragmatic conservatism, is it? Surely, in the two decades charters have been operating, they should have come up with some evidence it’s effective. They haven’t, because they’re not.

  • I don’t really understand why an argument with a conservative needs to devolve into the same kind of nonsense that characterizes the top of your response, but I don’t think I have suggested you are “stupid” or a “little person.” I’m just trying to have a disagreement with you.

    As for the members of Congress, I have two answers. One is that D.C. schools are (and have been) a complete disaster. In my initial post, I acknowledged that charters might be an answer in places like that, which Montana is not. Secondly, members of Congress are sending their children to elite, expensive schools that will still be out of reach of Montana families with the passage of any of these bills. The only people who will be able to take advantage of that will be those who are already quite wealthy.

    Finally, you argue that we should adopt the proposal despite a lack of evidence. That’s hardly sensible, pragmatic conservatism, is it? Surely, in the two decades charters have been operating, they should have come up with some evidence it’s effective. They haven’t, because they’re not.

  • Don, you simply can’t argue with these idiots. They “know” what they “know” and nothing you say or show them – especially facts – will ever change their minds. This blowhard is obviously out of touch given that he maintains that nothing has changed in 30 years. Apparently he was cowering under his rock when “No Child Left Behind” was passed. He must still be cowering beneath his rock given that schools today have more tools (like computers) than schools 30 years ago had.

    Your best bet is to nod and smile (and then privately hope they climb back under their rock as soon as possible). They are are unreachable.

    I am certainly not saying there aren’t issues with Public Education. I am just saying that the alternatives being paraded by idiots like mister Anonymouse are not viable and have proven not to be viable.

    As far as Obama and other wealthy people sending thier kids to private schools… of course they do. Private schools don’t have to meet the same standards of educating every kid so they can focus on “prepping” young Biff and Buffy for their cushy life as a trustfund kid. Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to send our kids to public schools and (if we are at all cogniscent of our duty to our kids to be involved) we will ensure that our kids have the tools to compete in a world that is rapidly closing doors in the faces of everyone not born to priviledge.

  • You argue that DC schools are a complete disaster. Given that premise, can we not agree that there are some schools in Montana that are failing? Would you support vouchers, or tax breaks, or something for those districts?

    I think this overall is a terrible idea. I would give outright vouchers to Montanans. It’s their money, let them spend it however they want too.

    The reason we don’t know just how good, or bad for that matter, private charter schools will be is because they do not operate in a “free market”. Give parents their money to spend on their children how they see fit. Let the market find a way to make it work and if parents are displeased than let them freely decide to send their kids to publicly financed public schools. This would move public schools to look for improvement themselves so as to get those “voucher” dollars to come back/stay in the public school system.

    Free markets work, that’s why you have a smart phone instead of something that only makes phone calls. That’s why you have a flat screen instead of a black and white tube tv. Let the market work and improvement will come. I can’t tell you what it will look like any more than I can tell you what a car will look like ten years from now. What I can tell you however, is that if allowed to operate freely, it will be better than what we have today.

    • bwuahahahahaaa! What are you, fifteen years old? OK, prove your theory. Pick ANY city or town in Montana and design your ideal free market school! I know you can do it, ’cause you SAY you can do it!

      What will be your building costs? And upkeep? And maintenance? And heating?

      What will you pay your teachers? What will your enrollment be? Will you be accredited? What courses will you offer? What will your curriculum be? Who will decide what it will be?

      You see, little fella, you’re an idiot. You have NO clue what you’re talking about. Maybe you should go actually TALK to those folks around the state who have actually TRIED starting christowacko schools. It just ain’t as easy as you fart about. Our current system is the best out there. And BTW, if YOU know of a Montana school that is “failing”, please expose it! But you don’t because you’re an idiot.

    • No.

      School choice wouldn’t help a small Montana town. It’s illogical. The only places that could conceivably benefit from the scenario outlined by Frederick Hess might be one of Montana’s largest districts–and none of them are near the conditions that Michelle Rhee and “school choice” brought to D.C.

      Waving the “free market” wand isn’t an argument. There’s two decades of experimentation involved here. Charter schools are a failure.

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