The Discrimination at Greg Gianforte’s Petra Academy Is Worse Than We Thought

Back in January, we took a look at Greg Gianforte’s Petra Academy, which goes to pains on its admission form to discourage parents of students with disabilities from applying to the school. The form tells prospective parents that the school is “not staffed to handle students with severe learning disabilities or those who have trouble behaviorally,” and asks parents to answer a set of invasive questions about their student to determine attendance at the school. The form, like the school’s policy, is almost certainly designed to keep students with disabilities out.

At the time, I questioned Petra’s policy on two points. A great deal of Petra’s values are explicitly Christian, a religious faith that, last I checked, was led by a man whose entire philosophy was centered around the idea of loving all humanity. He preached to the sick, he healed the lame, and he told those who were his followers that they needed to care for others as they would care for members of their own families. It’s simply difficult reconcile Christian theology with a policy that discriminates against people for disability, a hypocrisy I found troubling then and find hard to accept today.

Ethics aside, the broader concern is that Mr. Gianforte and Montana Republicans are deeply committed to the idea that schools like Petra Academy should be able receive taxpayer dollars through programs that combine vouchers, educational savings accounts, and other transfers. They want a system in which schools that don’t want to won’t have to provide instruction to students with different religious views than their own, students with minor disabilities, or even those with behavioral issues. They want to funnel money from the public schools to their institutions and leave the public schools, which legally cannot and morally will not, to absorb the expense and challenge of teaching students who may struggle for various reasons.

It’s the fundamental long con of the school privatization movement: to create a separate track of education centered on profit or religious beliefs and condemn the public schools they are starving of funding. Along the way, they can ignore laws that mandate educational opportunities for children with disabilities, annual testing requirements and public notification of those results, as well as transparent budgeting and open records requests.

It’s a tremendous scam, and a closer look at Petra’s student handbook today reveals the danger of this agenda. The “Exceptional Needs” Policy at Petra is a shocking document, one that provides the school the ability to not only exclude students who have minor, easily accommodated disabilities from attending classes, but the ability to expel student who develop them or who are discovered to have them.

These are the conditions that can keep a student from entering Petra and which permit a student’s expulsion from the school:

Learning Disabilities, Mental Retardation, Autism, Emotional or Behavioral Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Gifted, or Physical Disabilities. For the purpose of this policy, it is not important whether or not the condition was accurately diagnosed and is a genuine disability or exceptionality.

They even helpfully note that that list is not exhaustive, and they can block students for other causes.

Even worse are details of the policy, which make it clear that students with disabilities cannot expect the reasonable accommodations that are legally mandated in businesses like your local coffee shop. Among its policies, Petra notes that:

  • 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.
  • Children with a mild disability/exceptionality will be given the same amount of individual instruction and encouragement as their classmates.
  • minor accommodations shall not necessitate appreciable time commitments from the teacher(s) outside of what is normally needed for students without mild disability/exceptionality.
  • If after implementing minor accommodations in a particular situation, the Headmaster determines that it is not in the best interest of the school and/or the child to continue, the Headmaster may discontinue the same, at his discretion. If needed, he may also ask the parents to withdraw the student in order to obtain proper assistance for him/her.

In short, Petra’s policies are designed to make it almost impossible for a student with disabilities to get the minor accommodations necessary to ensure success, the kind of accommodations that public school teachers provide students every day. If your brilliant son or daughter needs a few extra minutes to complete a test because s/he is dyslexic, too bad, because they may not be given more time. If your child needs verbal explanation of written instructions, it’s up to the Headmaster to decide if she gets them.

That last bullet point is the most telling, as the most likely “proper assistance” for the student in question will be to send the child to public schools, who are not only bound to provide services in-school for students with disabilities, but can become legally obligated to pay for programs outside.

While groups Mr. Gianforte has funded are running around the state denigrating the work of public school teachers and laying the groundwork for privatization of Montana’s excellent schools, it certainly seems worth asking why the school he had led from its beginning has embraced a discriminatory admissions and education policy. It’s even more critical for the press to ask Mr. Gianforte to explain if he believes that all schools should be required to follow the law, and just what kind of legislation he’d sign as governor.

Maybe it’s time we stop talking about an airplane and the $1 or so each of us has paid for the governor to visit the far-flung corners of our state, and time to start talking about the huge financial costs and moral harm of undermining public education in our state. Perhaps it’s time to have Mr. Gianforte explain his vision for the schools, and the obligation we have as a society to give every child a chance to succeed.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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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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  • It’s simple. You don’t choose a private school, a private school chooses you!

    I choose no public dollars for such an arrangement. And really, if GG is the yuuuge jesus jumper he claims to be, why doesn’t HE fully fund such an enterprise?

    And then, Petra can do like all the Catholic schools are doing. If ya want to keep your doors open, go Chinese! Yep. The Catholic schools are bringing in tons of Chinese and Uyghur students whose parents have tons of money and can afford high tuition. And I see nothing really wrong with that.

    Oh sure, the Uyghur kids are Muslim, but what the heck. We can corrupt’em to the ways of Jeeeezus!

    BTW, Uyghur kids come from an extremely interesting region of China. I don’t think they even like the Chinese very much. They are forced to speak Chinese in school, but speak Uyghur amongst themselves. I know some of them. Great kids.

  • I like the Jesuits – tough, intellectual and wise enough to be tolerant without compromising Faith, and why I like Pope Francis. Catholic schools are embracing God’s children of ALL colors with sincere interest..

  • Yes, simple, they cannot afford the facilities or staff to support this in this great economy. How much is your health care costing you? How much has it gone up for you. How is your pay check doing. Think about the companies that no longer offer retirement, but only 401Ks. The unions were no help there. Are you next. Perhaps you gents also want to close Carroll College.

  • I do not buy that GG will uphold the separation of church and state as governor. I attended private school in MT for 12 years and do not choose it for my children. It took years for me to recover from, and accept, that my differing viewpoints were just as valid as those I had been indoctrinated with. ps – I don’t believe GG has been a part of Petra from the beginning, but has played a large funding role since his children began attending and since. He certainly puts his $ where his mouth is, and it does not resonate with my belief system, or that of many free and forward thinking Montanans.

  • One could ask is this a witch hunt?

    Billings Catholic School Policy:
    The Billings Catholic Schools recognize the special needs of students with disabilities and strive to
    provide for the educational services for all of its students to the best of the schools’ abilities and
    resources. The Billings Catholic Schools cannot be expected to meet the learning, physical, and/or
    emotional needs of students with severe or extraordinary disabilities when the expertise and/or
    resources needed to appropriately and adequately educate the child surpass those of the school faculty
    and staff. Unless alternative arrangements are made by the administration, students must be able to
    perform in the classroom without special accommodations.

  • So, it becomes the fine line between exclusion and discrimination. Why is it that the religious schools refuse to hire staff that can deal with kids that don’t meet their requirements? Petra Academy’s families are not hurting for money, it’s not like they can’t afford to hire special needs teachers.Public schools will take these kids and work with them. They don’t suggest you find another school.

  • Pat, good question for the private schools. I can only speculate it is to keep the costs down for those that do attend. I can imagine this is a economic challenge for those parents that have children enrolled. Not all parents that have children enrolled make the big bucks, plus I suspect these schools want to make themselves available to as many students as they economical can and provide the best quality education that this schools envision.

    • Yes Bill, exactly. If private schools doubled tuition then they could accommodate, but then fewer families could afford it. In the public sector, I imagine high quality accommodations took decades to achieve and probably still leave much to be desired. Petra is still a young school and good inclusive programs take time to develop.

      It’s tricky to approach this issue as we have families choosing to pay extra out of pocket for education, who are then demonized for their shortcomings, instead of celbrated for educating some kids and reducing the financial burden on the public school system.

      • “Reducing the financial burden on the public school system?” Seems to me, Gianforte-style private school backers are pushing charter schools, voucher programs and cuts to public education funding — anything to make public schools look bad — so they can foist Christian, right-wing dogma on malleable kids.

      • That’s an absurd argument. If the Gianforte/MFF cabal gets their way, the money will leave the public schools and go to private schools. They won’t be reducing the burden on public schools at all.

  • We could carry on this conversation forever. We know in many of the large cities many of the public schools suck for the resistance to use more flowery words so private schools are the only choice. Then again this is a free nation not socialistic (yet) so the citizens do have choices. I/we may spend a $100 on a coat when I could get one that is just as warm for $20 and give $80 to the less fortunate but do we? There is always that choice and element of society.

  • “Minor accommodations” are one thing in the general education classroom. Minor accommodations allow students with mild disabilities to succeed in the regular education setting. I am a special education teacher, and I invite the writer of this article to spend a week with me in my classroom, where I serve children with intellectual disabilities, once referred to as educably mentally retarded. But of course that name has become offensive, so now it goes under a variety of monikers. The children I serve are unable to participate in regular education classes because of behavior problems, combined with reading/math levels that will probably never match the levels needed to succeed in the regular classroom setting. These students are not in need of “mild accommodations” that children with learning disabilities often have in their IEP’s. Extended testing time and extra time to complete assignments aren’t a hindrance to most teachers in the regular classroom setting because of the special ed inclusion teachers who accompany these children to their classes in order to ensure the accommodations are provided. Additionally, your experiences as an English teacher and Debate coach really don’t qualify you to speak out on the needs of students with special needs, because you probably didn’t have students with severe disabilities in your classroom, let alone on the Debate Team. Sadly, those of us in the special education field are ever so aware that even our peers in regular education are rarely cognizant of what it takes to teach these children. And that is understandable, as most of you did not go into teaching to teach students with disabilities, you taught a subject. I teach children with intellectual disabilities. They are basically incapable of functioning in a regular classroom setting, otherwise that is where we would place them. The difference between what goes on in my classroom and what goes on in an advanced placement classroom is mind-boggling, and I won’t even begin to enumerate the differences. All I can do is extend an invitation to you to come spend a week in my classroom, and hopefully that will change your perception on why a private school chooses to not serve students with severe disabilities.

    • Laurie,

      I am going to take you at your word that you actually are a classroom teacher, though what appears to be a serious lack of knowledge special education law calls that into question.

      Surely you know that public schools are required to teach students with special needs in the least restrictive environment possible. While a very small number require the kind of services you describe, the vast majority of students with disabilities can be in the regular classroom when provided additional support.

      Every year, I teach students in my Debate, AP, and regular English classes who have the kind of disabilities that would exclude them from attending Petra. Petra specifically excludes students with dyslexia, ADHD, physical disabilities, and emotional/behavioral issues. I, like public school teachers across the country teach kids with those issues every day.

      Why? Because the law requires it and human decency demands it.

      Mr. Gianforte not only heads a school that does not want to serve these students, but he funds groups that want to take taxpayers dollars to do it.

      Surely, people in the special education field understand how devastating that would be to all of our students.

      • As a mother of one son with ADHD and another son with Bipolar, I am thankful my son’s have yet to encounter a teacher as overwhelmed with their position as Laurie. Special Ed. requires a very unique and “special” personality, one that is compassionate, patient, flexible and understanding.

        After reading all of the comments, my takeaway is that my sons don’t belong anywhere?? To teach them is too costly both in time and funding? Perhaps the public would be better off if all the undesirables were once again institutionalized? Out of sight out of mind?

        How privileged of all of you, to be able to write about children with severe disabilities with such simplicity. My guess is none of you have ever been faced with the decision to hospitalize your 6 year old son because he was a threat to himself.

        Have any of you spent days reading/dissecting all the medications for the treatment of bipolar. Mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, atypical anti-psychotics, convulsants, anti-depressants, etc. How they interact with one another, what are the side effects?

        I’m a pull myself up from the bootstraps, kinda person, I have collaborated with the psychiatrists, pediatricians, and the school administrators and teachers. My son is now 10 years old and has been medically stable for two years. He is in 5th grade, but yes spends most of his time in the special education room because he is behind academically and socially compared to his peers. I am grateful his school is patient and tolerant of his emotional/behavioral deficits and have not labeled him a social pariah or outcast. The goal for my son and for all children with his deficits is to give them the tools to be fully self sufficient adults. The goal is to invest in them while they are young and before they are susceptible to drugs, alcohol, and criminal behavior.

        This article and the comments contained herein make clear only public schools are up to the task of serving all of our youth despite their disability. School choice, is the choice to discriminate against those most vulnerable in our society.

  • Laurie/Don, great exchange, keep going I might lean something. I an not being satirical. I appreciate your points of view. Regarding Mr. Gianforte please advise me where he supports Mt Gov subsidizing private schools. I have not been able to find any press or statements where he says he supports this?

  • Don – As a self-proclaimed English teacher I think you would be well served to proof read your article before posting. Grammar and spelling errors do not build credibility.

  • Gianforte supports ending all “Gun Free Zones” and allowing guns in public schools …..I wonder if he allows citizens carrying guns into his private school or if it’s a “gun free zone” for safety reasons?

      • Bill, familiarize yourself with the current and latest police response tactics in Montana to a school shooting situation before you spout. Hey, I’m a gun nut, but the pohleece got this one covered in spades. A teacher with a gun would only complicate things. Trust me on this one. This is one situation in which I will wait for a police response, for it is truly minutes away. They have thought this one all the way through, and so have the schools.

        • LK, 2013, 18 states allow adults to carry a loaded gun on school grounds, generally provided that they have written permission from a principal or the school board, I am not sure how many states now allow this.

  • I actually see no discrimination being displayed by this school, rather it is information. They are letting the parents know what the staff they have can handle and being upfront about it. I do not, however, think that private schools that cannot meet the same standards required of public schools should receive public money through vouchers or other means.

  • This article and comment section epitomizes overstatement. As a graduate of Petra I can say that the so called “discrimination” is for the students own good. The education is very demanding and not all students are equipped to cope in such an environment. In my many years there, I had many special needs children as classmates. Rather than be discriminated against, the teachers tried to help them through, if if most did not make it.

  • I taught at Petra when it was operating out of a carpet store. It did not have the wherewithal to mirror public school programs as described here and still may not. However, whether public dollars should support it or other private schools is a worthwhile discussion.

  • Public schools receive federal and state funding to provide special ed for those who need it. This funding typically provides for an aide for each student and other services. I assume you’re ok with private schools getting the same govt $$ so they can provide the same programs and assistance for these kids?

    There is nothing discriminatory going on, this blog is just more liberal hate.

    • Instead of spewing nonsense about “liberal hate,” perhaps you can research the issues at play here. The conservative argument that Mr. Gianforte has funded and advanced is that we should have a system of “school choice” that allows public dollars to be spent on private schools like this that permit discrimination.

      In fact, all over the country, public dollars are being spent in exactly that way, with students being denied opportunities.

      Do the reading. Come back when you’re ready to have a real debate.

  • It would seem logical that a school would receive X dollar amount for providing education for X number of special needs instructors for X number of students. If a school doesn’t provide that type of education, they don’t receive those allocated funds.

  • Gianforte, you’re nothing but a lying, worthless, filthy-rich, stuck-up idiot!!
    Get out of the Montana congressional race, bonehead!!
    Corporate mobsters like you have no place in Montana (or anywhere else on Earth)!!

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