While the Republicans in the Legislature celebrate
Corporate Profit School Choice Week this week, it’s worth noting that many of the bills they are promoting for Montana’s schools and children represent poorly conceived efforts to substitute ideology for sound educational practices. If the ultimate aim is to destroy the integrity and independence of public schools, you could hardly do better than some of the propoals, which seem rooted in UN conspiracy theories rather than pedagogical aims.
Let’s start with Clayton Fiscus, who once again wants the Montana Legislature to protect my unfettered right to teach that all life on Earth sprang from the remains of the giant Ymir, murdered by Odin and his brothers. You see, unsatisfied with the current decision by those who fail to properly worship the All-Father and who instead teach Darwinian evolution, Fiscus wants to give teachers the right—even the obligation—to teach “all theories and viewpoints” for “true critical thinking.” Under the mantle of academic freedom for teachers, Fiscus is trying to implement a backdoor adoption of intelligent design theory, a theory as scientific as Norse mythology, but far less cool.
The Fiscus folly, however, is dwarfed by the legislative efforts of Debra Lamm, a former lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation and self-appointed expert on the Common Core. Lamm has no fewer than 10 bills in for consideration, all but one about education, bill requests that seem to badly misunderstand the Legislature’s role with schools and the nature of testing mandated by the new Montana Content Standards.
LC 1134 is the best example of Lamm’s complete overreach. This small piece of legislation would:
- revise accreditation standards.
- require meetings already open to the public to be open.
- prohibit public officials from joining organizations Deb Lamm doesn’t like.
- repeal the Common Core State Standards, adopted over a four year process of public meetings and work with schools.
- replace them with standards presumably written by Ms. Lamm herself.
- and 5-32 other major, unconstitutional abrogations of the power of the Board of Public Education.
The number of things Ms. Lamm is incorrect about when it comes to the Common Core Standards and the process by which Montana adopted them is truly staggering, and what follows is truly only a selection of the problems with this bill.
Let’s start with the relationship between the Legislature and Board of Public Education. The Board of Public Education is a collection of citizens, chosen by the Governor and approved by the Senate, citizens charged with oversight and supervision of Montana schools. It was established by those who wrote the Montana Constitution precisely to avoid controversies like the one caused by Ms. Lamm, because the education of schoolchildren in Montana should not become a political football to be tossed around every two years in the Legislature. It’s ironic that Ms. Lamm believes in local control of schools, but wants to let the Legislature dictate standards with less public input than exists now. And it’s one of the reasons this bill, even if it passes, will be struck down by the Courts.
The second unconstitutional element of the bill violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which certainly protects the right of association. Lamm’s bill would says that:
Public officers of this state may not join on behalf of the state or a state agency any consortium, association, or other entity if the membership would require the state or a political subdivision to cede any measure of control over the basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools of this state.
That language is not only lifted from a crackpot bill submitted to the Ohio Legislature, but perhaps the single most idiotic line of a bill draft request in 2015. Who determines what constitutes such an organization? What is the punishment for joining one? And it rests on the entirely unfounded premise that adoption of the Common Core State Standards required ceding of control to any outside agency. Instead, as Ms. Lamm surely must know, the state voluntary accepted the Common Core State Standards because they were better than the standards that preceded them. [pullquote] So, we’re not only going to travel back in time—something Representative Fiscus would no doubt approve of— but we’re going to use the standards of states who have abandoned their content standards for the Common Core as blueprints for more local control of education. One thing seems certain: no Lamm-approved content standards will include the study of logic. [/pullquote]
Next, the bill creates a de facto legislative power to block the implementation of any new standards unless they are approved by a 16 person committee largely comprised of members of the Legislature and their designees, meaning that people like Lamm, Sarah Laszloffy, and Clayton Fiscus will soon have the power to determine what our students learn. Rather than restoring the “local control” Ms. Lamm contends is missing from the Common Core Standards, her bill would concentrate power in the hands of elected officials in Helena, who would have the ability to impose their agenda on state content standards.
Next, the bill proposes scrapping the Common Core State Standards and replacing them with the standards that were in place before their adoption. As a teacher, I can assure you that would be a disastrous decision for our kids—as the standards we had in place previously were vague and unclear—and simply not demanding enough. Conservative commentators agreed, scoring the Montanan state standards as among the weakest in the nation. The decision also underscores the foolishness of the Lamm proposal, which would mean a dramatic reversal for teachers who have invested years in shifting to the new standards, standards that Montana’s best educators have enthusiasatically endorsed. And that’s precisely why the Constitution left these decisions in the hands of the Board of Public Education, to ensure consistency and predictability for Montana students and parents, not to mention school districts and their budgets.
Lamm’s bill nonsensically calls for, without defining terms, a committee to review “highly-rated pre-2009” standards as potential replacements for the state to consider for adoption in 2016. So, we’re not only going to travel back in time—something Representative Fiscus would no doubt approve of— but we’re going to use the standards of states who have abandoned their content standards for the Common Core as blueprints for more local control of education. One thing seems certain: no Lamm-approved content standards will include the study of logic.
While there are many other problems with this piece of legislation, a final note is in order. Ms. Lamm seems obsessed with repeating the claim that Montana adopted the Common Core Standards in secret, a useful canard presented by critics who simply weren’t paying attention as the Board of Public Education worked through the process. The truth is that there were no fewer than 12 public, noticed meetings about the adoption of the standards. It’s one thing for Ms. Lamm to write a bureaucratic, constitutional nightmare of a bill about state content standards, as it’s what one might expect from a novice legislator, but it’s another thing entirely for her to suggest the Board of Public Education didn’t solicit public input, input that was certainly easier to provide than it will be for one of the plethora of boards Ms. Lamm’s bill plans to create.
The choice seems clear: to stick with high-level, engaging standards that will encourage excellence from our students or to give the power to determe educational standards to people who believe we should reject settled evolutionary science in favor of religious belief, people who have let paranoid fears about government control get in the way of good sense, and people who are likely to use education as a means of advancing a political agenda rather than a pedagogical one.