Why Is the Superintendent of Public Instruction Publicly Undermining Montana’s Public Schools?

It was disappointing–though hardly surprising–for this teacher last week when Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen was out in front of the Montana State Capitol rallying to undermine Montana’s public schools. Appearing at a rally spearheaded by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the hate group the Montana Family Foundation, Arntzen concluded a verbally incoherent set of remarks advocating for a partnership between public and private schools:

“No student learns the same way,” she said. “They all learn differently.”
Arntzen said her goal as superintendent is to offer a system in which “public and private schools work together for the benefit of students.”

The relationship private school advocates call for could only be called a partnership by someone who believes that a tapeworm lives in partnership with its human host.

It’s the parasitic 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.

The fundamental reason that groups like the Koch Brothers fund private education is not because they believe in educational

The relationship private school advocates call for could only be called a partnership by someone who believes that a tapeworm lives in partnership with its human host.
opportunity or because they really care about the euphemistic “choice” they crow about, but because they want to suck the resources from public schools to fund schools that will use public dollars to fund schools that will discriminate against students of color and students with disabilities, promote religious viewpoints, and undermine scientific and evidence-based learning.

Research makes it clear that private schools are far more likely to discriminate than public schools. A landmark study by the Southern Education Foundation found that private schools are more likely to be “virtually all-white”:

The fact is that, over the years, African-American families and non-white families have come to understand that these private schools are not schools that are open to them, especially in light of their traditional role and history related to desegregation of public schools.
Historically these schools were used to placate parents who did not want their children attending public schools with minorities after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

And we don’t need to look any farther than Montana to see that these schools are engines of discrimination against students with disabilities. Greg Gianforte, the Republican Congressman from Montana who signaled his support for the school choice rally, ran a school that was explicitly discriminatory. As we have reported, Gianforte’s school went as far as to exclude kids with almost any disability or behavioral issue.

Perhaps most important is the simple fact that vouchers–the mechanism school choice advocates call for– lead to horrible educational outcomes. The results across the country, from D.C. to Arizona, Indiana to Louisiana, show results that are “the worst in the history of” research into school improvement.

This long quote summarizes just how damaging vouchers have been:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.
The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.
They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.
This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

Discrimination. Bias. An educational disaster for Montana students, all to enrich corporate and religious groups at the expense of public school students, the very group of people who Mrs. Arntzen is charged with serving.

While press coverage of the rally didn’t address any of the concerns about school “choice” and the voucher movement, perhaps Arntzen can find the time to explain to Montana parents, students, and taxpayers why she is advocating to undermine the schools that have served Montana so well.

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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  • Be carefull Montana. I retired here so I could hunt and fish. I was born and raised in Michigan. PLEASE take the time to investigate what these people say.

  • I am the product of Montana public schools, “the schools that have served Montana so well.” Good and well funded public schools has always been a Montana value, and publically funded Montana schools for all our children and youth is a must. Our children deserve nothing less. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

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