Reject the Gianforte-DeVos Agenda to Devastate Public Education in Montana

Two campaigns for public office and Greg Gianforte is still committed to overseeing a school that discriminates against students with disabilities ranging from severe physical challenges to problems with paying attention.

The Huffington Post confirmed yesterday that Greg Gianforte’s Petra Academy still discriminates against students with special needs:

One of the editorial board members interviewing Gianforte was incredulous, demanding to know why the school couldn’t afford to welcome all students when he had donated millions of dollars to the school. Gianforte claimed that it was simply too costly. If Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock had not vetoed a bill creating a public fund for parents of special needs kids to use toward any school, “it would be much easier for schools like Petra” to accommodate students with disabilities, according to Gianforte.

Petra Academy’s Headmaster Craig Dunham confirmed to HuffPost that the policy remains in place.

The bill Gianforte referenced in his interview with the Gazette would have allowed the transfer of taxpayer dollars to private schools like the one Mr. Gianforte runs, without requiring those schools to accept students with disabilities. That’s the end game for the school choice movement that Gianforte has supported for decades: to strip funding from public schools and allow that money to be sent anywhere else, from private, religious schools that discriminate to homeschooling without any accreditation.

If that seems hyperbolic, it shouldn’t. Consider that this video explaining the end goal of the school choice movement is featured prominently on the Petra Academy web page:

The video, produced by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (which Gianforte has also donated to) argues for a radical redistribution of public dollars to institutions that have no standards in place, few protections for students with disabilities, and almost no oversight. Gianforte’s support for undermining public education and for discriminating against kids was an excellent reason to reject his bid to buy the governor’s chair and it remains an excellent reason to keep him out of Congress.

Petra’s headmaster, in a series of posts that critique public schools for being insufficiently Christian, not very good, and dominated by the Common Core, lays out the argument even more explicitly, calling for tax dollars to be spent on religious instruction:

In a society like our ours that aspires to pluralism, this is fine; however, educational funding should not be offered to one family while withheld from another under the false dichotomy of religious or non-religious schooling. If the state and federal governments insist on collecting taxes for the purpose of education, then fund all the parents instead of only some of the schools. Let the parents – not the politicians – decide where their kids would best learn and make it easier for them to get there.

All of this matters in the election of our next Congressman. As the recent ACA repeal vote shows, the House is likely to be quite divided on the more reactionary elements of the Trump agenda. Montana cannot elect a Congressman who will help (and even lead) the charge to weaken public schools.

While conservatives have long argued that schools should be under local control, Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made little secret of her intention to shift policy and budgets at the federal level to promote school choice programs.

Those proposals, which Congress would oversee, would devastate rural schools and communities in Montana, as a report from the Center for American Progress notes:

Much has been written about the devastating impact such a proposal would have on local communities, since $20 billion would subsume most federal K-12 education spending. Currently, that spending is specifically targeted to low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and other vulnerable children. But little has been written about the fact that the proposal misses the mark when it comes to the real challenges facing the vast majority of school districts across the country. The simple fact is that most rural and suburban areas are either sparsely populated or organized in small districts where there are not enough schools for vouchers to be a viable or effective policy solution. In these districts, vouchers would be not just ineffective, but they could also dramatically destabilize public school systems and communities.

In fact, the DeVos-Gianforte proposals would be so damaging to schools in rural areas that Republican senators from Maine, Wyoming, and Alaska “all used their limited time for questions during DeVos’ confirmation hearing to speak about the special challenges facing rural and frontier schools in their states.”

Mr. Gianforte has managed to strike upon support for education policy that is both morally reprehensible and acutely damaging, particularly to the students and small school districts in Montana. The policies he’d support in Congress would deny the promise of equal education to students with disabilities and dramatically undermine the schools that are so often the center of Montana’s small communities.

Mr. Gianforte has every right to educate his children how he sees fit. He absolutely does not have the right to demand that you and I pay for religious schools that will do serious harm to students with disabilities and our communities.

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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  • How do the Indian Reservations feel about this?

    Maybe parents want a choice.

    LGBT Canadians are furious after a Catholic school district canceled performances of a play about gender identity – meant for children as young as 5 years old.

  • Restrooms and locker rooms
    Your school must allow you to use restrooms and locker rooms that align with your gender identity. If you desire more privacy and prefer to use a more private restroom or changing area, your school should accommodate that. Your school cannot force you to use a private restroom (such as in the nurse’s office) if that is not what you prefer.

  • Please do not forget the terrible, poor performance scores, 20 year history of many charter schools. Those managed by private firms often siphon education funds before the students receive a dime. DeVos continues to fund charter schools that repeatedly fail to meet educational standards in an effort to push the private school agenda. The history is well documented.

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