Aside from his penchant for funding white supremacist candidates for the Montana Legislature, one of the most under-reported stories about Greg Gianforte is that he actively discriminated against kids with disabilities, refusing to accept them at his Petra Academy.
We’ve written about this story before. At Petra Academy, Gianforte oversaw a private school that actively excluded kids with serious to minor disabilities from admissions. Petra’s 2015-16 handbook for parents noted that Petra would not knowingly admit students with:
“Learning Disabilities, Mental Retardation, Autism, Emotional or Behavioral Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder, Hyperactivity Disorder, Gifted, or Physical Disabilities.”
The Petra policy went on to note that students with minor disabilities could pay the fee to attend Petra, but only if the kids didn’t require any additional time to do the work, any additional help from the teachers, or modifications of the assignments provided. Despite the absence of these basic accommodations for students, the policy still gave the headmaster the discretion to remove the student for any reason.
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.
As any teacher in a public school system will tell you, students come with all sorts of abilities and the measure of an educational system is the way it serves kids with all their special, unique needs. The public schools that conservatives have spent the last two decades demonizing can’t cut costs by refusing to build a ramp providing access for a student in a wheelchair, can’t refuse to hire an aide for a student with an emotional disability, and certainly don’t close their doors to students who are hyperactive. But Greg Gianforte defended a policy permitting the very private schools he thinks the government should fund denying those same tools for access.
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 to 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.
When pressed on his support for a policy he oversaw at Petra, Gianforte told the Billings Gazette editorial board that it was “simply too costly” for Petra to provide accommodations. Petra Academy, which costs $7,725 a year for a high school student, had received $11.1 million from Greg Gianforte’s foundation as of 2016 and built Bozeman’s largest stage on 2013, but somehow, according to Gianforte, couldn’t provide services for students with even the mildest disabilities.
Gianforte, who also had the resources necessary to donate to a creationist museum that features dioramas of humans running around with dinosaurs and millions to outfits like the Montana Family Foundation to spread their hateful message, just couldn’t find a few dollars to help educate children with disabilities at his school.
There are important policy distinctions that separate Greg Gianforte from Kathleen Williams in this race: the former believes in taking away health care from people with pre-existing conditions, blocking off access to public lands, legalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and massive tax cuts for the wealthiest among us while Kathleen Williams believes in a fairer, more inclusive society that protects the rights of all Montanans. Williams will fight for sensible policymaking in Washington, not the TEA Party, Trump Appeasing demagoguery that has characterized Gianforte’s time in D.C.
Beyond policy, though, we must look to character. Think about the three bitterly negative and very dishonest campaigns Greg Gianforte has run over the past two years in Montana. Think about his assault on a reporter and subsequent refusal to follow through on his promise (made under oath, in court!) to make amends. Think about his refusal to meet with the people he represents.
But most of all, perhaps, think about the fact that Greg Gianforte oversaw the implementation of—and defended—a policy of discrimination against some of the most vulnerable members of our society. How could someone with those beliefs possible represent Montanans in Congress?