In the past few days, the Gianforte-funded front group Americans for Prosperity has rolled out a coordinated attack against Governor Bullock, with mailers and paid canvassers spreading the dishonest claim that Governor Bullock “turned his back” on “special needs children.” The mailers and paid canvassers (who, according to the accounts of friends unfortunate enough to open the door to them, had no idea what they were talking about) claim that the Governor failed to support students with disabilities when he vetoed a bill in the 2015 legislative session.
The bill in question, HB 322, was presented as an opportunity to allow parents of students with special needs the chance to take the funding for the student and apply it to private programs for their education. Bullock rightly vetoed the bill, which was an effort establish “backpack” funding for education in Montana, allowing the dollars allocated to follow the student, not the schools that serve them. It had significant constitutional problems, and was little more than a Trojan horse for the school choice movement, who are seeking incremental steps to tear down Montana’s constitutional firewall that prevents state spending for religious instruction.
It was a bad bill, and the mailer is a dishonest attack against Governor Bullock on behalf of Mr. Gianforte, but it’s worse that, because Mr. Gianforte has been the primary funder and board chair of a school that has an explicitly discriminatory policy against students with disabilities, a story I broke here back in January.
Back then, I noted that the Petra Academy has an explicit restriction in its application against students with disabilities. It’s actually worse, as their Learning Disability Policy goes so far as to authorize kicking out a student who is discovered to have disability. From the policy:
Severe Disability/Exceptionality*: Any condition in a student which would require a separate classroom, program, or staff in order to provide the educational services required by Petra Academy.
Mild Disability/Exceptionality*: Any condition in an applicant or student which does not require a separate classroom, program, and staff in order to provide the educational services required by Petra Academy.
Children with a severe disability/exceptionality will not be knowingly admitted to Petra Academy because Petra lacks the staff, funding, and facilities to serve the needs of these children adequately. If it becomes apparent that a child has a severe disability/exceptionality the parents will need to withdraw the student in order to obtain proper assistance for him/her.
That’s astonishing. Despite significant tuition, despite heavy funding from Mr. Gianforte and his foundation, Petra Academy can force a student out if “a disability becomes apparent.” It’s not Governor Bullock who has turned his back against students with special needs; it’s Mr. Gianforte, who has led a school that has adopted an explicit policy of discriminatory action. Imagine a student enrolled in Petra, who is found to have a disability and disenrolled from the school. What kind of damage would that do to the student? Her family?
Between 2004 and 2013, the Gianforte Family Foundation contributed over $11 million dollars to Petra Academy. According to its web site, Gianforte is still the chairman of its board, and a permanent” board member, a position no doubt influenced by the fact that he has been the school’s primary source of funds. Both his financial power and presence on the Board suggest that Mr. Gianforte would have the influence to change Petra’s discriminatory policy, but he’s done just the opposite.
In fact, in a February interview with the Billings Gazette, defended the policy before shifting to the very legislation his front group reference in their attack this week.
The interviewer’s point, which Mr. Gianforte chose to ignore, was that currently Petra could choose to serve students with disabilities, and receive government funding to do it, but in contravention of their stated religious beliefs and legal guidelines about discrimination, choose not to. All under Mr. Gianforte’s leadership.
Ultimately, this mailer and the actual facts lay bare the truth about the “school choice” movement: it’s an effort not to protect students with disabilities and other special needs; it’s an effort to starve public schools of funding, pull out students, and then condemn public schools for their failures to reach academic targets and serve the needs of students who need additional help. Public schools can’t exclude students with extreme behavioral, social, cognitive, physical, or emotional needs; nor would they, because the people who run and believe in public schools know that every child deserves an opportunity to receive an education.
That Mr. Gianforte does not share that belief is yet another reason to disqualify him from the office of governor in Montana, a state that is constitutionally and culturally committed to the idea that every person deserves and excellent education. That his front group, one that believes there are millions of Montanans and that one of our colleges is called the University of Montana-Bozeman, has to run dishonest campaigns on his behalf is just more evidence that he’s out of touch with the values of our state.
Stop scaring parents of students with special needs, Mr. Gianforte. They often struggle with challenges you simply couldn’t understand. Using their children as a wedge issue in a political campaign is just the despicable posturing of a politician desperate to win. Perhaps next time the Gianforte Family Foundation or you cut a check for a charitable donation, the money shouldn’t go to dishonest political front groups or schools that discriminate, but to the parents and schools who serve those students without question every day.
And a quick note to Americans for Prosperity. Millions of Montana educators know that you don’t refer to kids as “Special needs children.” They are students with special needs, because before anything they’re human beings, not labels. And certainly not political footballs to kick around in dishonest attack ads.