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.