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The Big M-T
Greg Gianforte's whale of a tale

(We originally published this in the Magpie on 13 August 2012, but the news of the Gianfortes' invitation to speak at the spring commencement at Montana Tech University beckoned a reprint of the report on Greg Gianforte's recent disposition toward and blatantly inaccurate attack on Montana's public education system.)

Call me agnostic.  Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—we as Americans started loosening our hold on language, diction and grammar. So, I will be clear, lest someone else clarifies for me; agnostism does not mean atheism. For a definition of the agnostic, I present an authoritative text and a worldly scholar.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary
“a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly…”

Henry deGlasse Wilson, an astrophysicist, philosopher, and Harvard professor who informally described agnostic as “referring to someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t really seen evidence for, but is prepared to embrace the evidence if it’s there.”

Why so tedious? Because specificity and articulation matter, and if we’re not using the same diction—or interpreting it the same—we as a community large or small can quickly get into trouble.

An illustrative example: in June, The Flathead Beacon printed an article, titled ‘Montana has become a battleground state for the school-choice debate.’  State advocates of “school choice” argue our public education system is ill. That should fall like thunder on all ears—across Montana, across America. Sen. Dave Lewis, a Republican from Helena was quoted in the Beacon article. “I think school choice should be the No. 1 issue in this state,” he said.

But before tallying all the bills proposed by Lewis and others for the 2013 Montana state legislature, let’s take a closer look at the diagnosis and supposed cure. We’ll start with the topic’s name, “school choice.”

Schools. Despite the rhetoric, Montana’s public education system is a national leader in proficiency—the Center for Applied Economic Research at MSU Billings recently ranked Montana 7th nationwide in both “educational output” and “educational efficiency.” Listings by national organizations regularly place Montana in the top ten across the country. But the MSU Billings report for the “educational input” of public schools—based on variables such as average teacher salaries, pupil/teacher ratios, education cost per student—located Montana somewhat farther down the list. To be precise, Montana ranked 46th in the country, with data from two states unavailable.

Consider that for a moment. Of all fifty states, Montana’s fiscal support of public education is at the bottom of the barrel. To me, that’s nothing short of an embarrassment. And yet, Montana kids perform in the top 15% nationwide, a fact that may be regarded with pride, or as a testament to our culture, or as proof of the singular effectiveness of our state and local education administrators.

Choice. Chocolate cake or blueberry pie? Cheese fries or pepperoni pizza? Who could be against choice? And we have plenty of it in Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley. A quick search of Montana’s state website shows no less that twenty private schools, Montessori schools, academies, and Christian schools, all within an easy drive of Bozeman.

While the private school buffet is limited in Montana to places like Gallatin County, as well as Billings, Missoula, and the Flathead—let’s recall that many of the less populous, more agrarian portions of the state struggle to vet enough students to fill a public school. According to the US Department of Agriculture last year, 24 of 56 counties in Montana don’t even have reasonable access to healthy food. Waiting for a slew of golden-shovel groundbreakings for academies and Christian schools anytime soon, anywhere across the prairie, could take ages with a capital ‘A.’

So if school choice is not about schools, and it’s not about choice, what else might it be about?

Taxes, for starters.

Lewis introduced a bill during the 2011 session that proposed offering tax credits to “individual and corporate taxpayers” who contribute to a scholarship organization for non-public school students. The premise of this and several other bills is that if the taxpayers are shelling out for private school, then they shouldn’t have to fund public schools.

Lewis’s bill failed, as did a similar one in 2009.  The 'school choice' bills have all faced a bipartisan trouncing in Montana, but Lewis and other proponents have put in numerous bill draft requests for similar legislation this year. Some mouthpieces chatter that 2013 is the year they’ll get one through.

More from The Flathead Beacon report:
Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a recent interview that school-choice ideas come from conservative out-of-state groups and don’t fit Montana, as demonstrated by the “bipartisan rejection” of past sessions. She said the “privatization of our public education” would “starve public schools when they are already struggling.”

“Our public schools are already squeezing every penny to provide what I think is a top-notch education,” Juneau said. “To divert any of that funding would really harm community-based education. I don’t believe in diverting public funds to fund private schools.”

Where there are areas of the public system that need improvement, Juneau said, “work with us to make it better.”

In April, Greg and Susan Gianforte, residents of Bozeman and on behalf of their family foundation, made a huge, $4.6 million donation to a new, Montana branch of the ACE scholarship fund. In recognition of their generosity, support, and advocacy, the Gianfortes were recipients in late July of the first Milton Friedman Champion of Education Freedom Award, given by the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

Though the home-state advocates of “school choice” include other wealthy benefactors like Semitool founder Ray Thompson of Kalispell and part-time Montana resident Craig Barrett, the retired CEO and chairman of Intel, it’s the Gianfortes that have been the most visible in their support of ACE and “school choice.” In April,Greg Gianforte went on KBZK to discuss both.

His pleasant demeanor and apparent control of the interview are noteworthy, but far more remarkable are the “facts” Gianforte provided:

At 21 seconds into the video, Gianforte said, “Only one-out-of-five (Montana) high school students actually graduates.” Not true. Montana’s high school graduation rate is reported by the state to be 82%. Even the ACE website states, “20% of Montana’s high school freshman class WILL FAIL to graduate from high school four years later.” (The emphasis is theirs.)

At 39 seconds, Gianforte says, “That ACE scholarships took graduation rates from 59% to 91% in the state of Colorado.” Not true. Colorado’s high school graduation rate has in recent years fluctuated around 74%, and that’s only if the study stresses “on time” for graduation.

At 29 seconds, Gianforte said, “We did a survey recently, found that 90% of the families in this state, if given a choice, would pick something other than a traditional public school.” Ummm, Greg, just whom did “we” survey?

There’s no doubt that ACE scholarships have been effective for a group of low-income students in Colorado, and the large donation by the Gianforte family foundation will spread good fortune in Montana. But do we really need to discuss the societal benefits of the public education system? If so, then I’ll start with what Milton Friedman, himself, wrote, “The education of my child contributes to other people’s welfare by promoting a stable and democratic society.”

But this isn’t merely a white-collar tax dodge; there must be another motive to undo generations of work or, in the words of Superintendent Juneau, for the “privatization of our public schools.”

Flipping the point-of-view, to what could public education be seen as an obstacle? The first thing that comes to mind is the secular nature of public schools. Remember, a fair number of those Gallatin County private institutions—including Petra Academy where Gianforte has been the chairman for 10 years—place doctrine firmly in the curriculum, usually in a room with better lighting than the sciences. Don’t take it from me, Petra’s own website says they give “primacy to the inspired Word of God as the final authority of all wisdom and consummately relevant in the pursuit of all knowledge...”

Another perceivable “obstacle” is that two of the most popular stations on America’s radio—the golden oldies of greed and nepotism—don’t harmonize with public education, a long-standing institution of large government or even socialistic ideals. It’s like a massive field of hippie flowers waiting for the Big Money weed-whipper. If only those 1%ers could figure out a way to divert the public spigot away from the struggling dopes and shower the successes with cash…

You gotta hand it to Montana’s deep-pocketed proponents of “school choice.” It’s a whale of a tale they’ve composed, though several of the chapters are pure fiction. Call me agnostic, hell, you can even call me Ishmael, but when it comes to ”school choice,” I’m nautical miles past skeptical. -TBM

Blake Maxwell is the founder and editor of The Bozeman Magpie.

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