While conservative groups, most of them backed financially by Greg Gianforte, continue to press the case that the state should violate the Montana Constitution and permit public funds to be spent on private, religious education, another problematic element of the private school agenda has escaped serious scrutiny: that many of those private schools not only have restrictive covenants that would restrict attendance based on religious beliefs, but also exclude students with disabilities.
It would be fair to say that Bozeman’s Petra Academy likely would not exist, and certainly would not exist in its current form, without the involvement of Greg Gianforte. He served as the chairman of its board from 2003, and has personally funded many of the school’s facilities and programs.
The application for Petra Academy contains a section one that certainly seems designed to permit discrimination against students with disabilities or behavioral issues:
Petra Academy is not staffed to handle students with severe learning disabilities or those who have trouble behaviorally. For your child’s best interest, please be candid when you answer the following questions. (If more than one child is applying please consider each one when answering.) If you answer ‘yes’ to 13-20, please explain below. Further elaboration of your answers may be required during an interview.
The application then goes on to ask a series of questions about the students, asking if they have been diagnosed with ADHD, have seen a psychiatrist, or received any special education services. Imagine the outrage if a public school used those questions as screening tools to prohibit students with disabilities from attending.
Not only would it be an outrage, it would be against the law. Public schools are expected to follow the guidelines of the IDEA ACT, which mandates that students with disabilities are provided free and appropriate education in what is called the least restrictive environment possible. Public schools don’t have the option to exclude children who might present additional challenges or require intensive staffing that can be quite costly, because public schools are committed to the simple idea that all children deserve access to education.
These restrictions are not only in place at Petra, of course. A search for the language about students with disabilities and/or behavioral issues shows that it is boilerplate language used all over the country, including in other Montana private schools. Still others do not state they may not accept the students, but ask the same questions, questions which are likely to prevent enrollment of students who might prove challenging to teach.
As Former Asst. Education Secretary Diane Ravitch notes, it’s not uncommon for private schools and those that receive vouchers to exclude students with disabilities from attending, with some going so far as to push students out of classes:
“Unfortunately, the rights and protections of the IDEA do not apply in private voucher schools such as LifeSkills Academy, and special needs vouchers would not change that. Private voucher schools are not required to have therapists or special educators on staff, and Wisconsin’s existing voucher program has a dismal track record of expelling or “counseling out” students with disabilities.
Now you might be tempted to give Petra Academy and other private schools credit for admitting that they cannot do what public schools can, namely, to teach students of all abilities and disabilities to their highest potential. That credit would be misplaced, however, when you consider that the organizations Mr. Gianforte supports, like the Montana Family Foundation, advocate the transfer of public dollars from public schools to private academies that literally inform students with disabilities they may not be welcome at their schools. Today, the Great Falls Tribune published an op-ed piece from the Gianforte-funded MFF, arguing once again for public dollars to be spent on private schools and scholarships to attend them.
It’s hard to understand how a school that prides itself as being built on Christian values explicitly informs potential applicants that they may be denied admittance for having a disability, but it’s unconscionable to argue that the state and its taxpayers should actually pay for schools that have discriminatory policies written into their admissions policies.
Perhaps the press will consider asking Mr. Gianforte to explain why he believes it would be appropriate to spend public money this way.