As a public school educator for the last 10 years, I have been blessed many times over to shape the young minds that come through my classroom. It is an honor to teach the future leaders of our state and I share the desire to make sure our kids have the best possible chance in life — not only as a teacher — but also as a mother of three children.
“Public education in Montana is the great equalizer,” the governor told Montanans recently. I couldn’t agree more. No matter the circumstances of their upbringing, the monetary means of their parents, the beautiful part of the state they call home, young Montanans are given equal footing in our public schools. That’s why I was so disappointed when last week the Montana House of Representatives heard several bills that proposed spending public dollars on private schools. The proponents called these bills “school choice”. Let us not be confused, “school choice” is not about helping our kids. The proposal would divert public dollars from Montana’s public schools to special interests at a cost of over $3 million to taxpayers.
Alternatives to public schools have existed for generations. As a teacher I welcome the options that many of our parents have. In my hometown of Butte, our Catholic elementary and high schools serve their communities and students well, and Montanans who educate their students at home provide a viable alternative to public schools. But what you don’t see is those same schools and educators coming with hat in hand to ask for taxpayer dollars. Before we spend Montanans' money, we must always ask who stands to benefit. Montanans are critical of outside special interests spending millions of dollars on our elections. Why then should we let special interests influence and benefit from our public education system?
Public education in Montana is among the best in the nation. Our eighth graders rank first in reading and math and second in science. With support from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington foundation, Graduation Matters has been successful in reducing dropout rates and increasing graduation rates — all done with the input from local communities and elected school boards. In 2009 the Montana Legislature approved what would become the Montana Digital Academy program. Montana Digital Academy allows high school students — including home-schooled students — across Montana to take online courses in a variety of subjects. Montana Digital Academy includes a foreign language preparatory program for middle school students and AP classes so high school students can complete college classes before stepping foot on campus.
We must continually work to develop new and innovative ways to increase the success of all Montana students. We owe it to Montana’s taxpayers and students to always do better. But continuous improvement can only come from an open, transparent process with oversight from locally elected school boards and input from parents and communities. Accountability to our students can only come from the taxpayers, not out of state special interests. Good schools are open schools and I urge you to voice your opposition to taxpayer giveaways.
Rep. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, is a teacher and former small business owner currently serving as House Minority Whip and represents House District 75.