Mary Sheehy Moe - February 13, 2013
The Stepford Session
The Stepford Session
MTPR Guest Commentary, Feb. 13, 2013
Mary Sheehy Moe
If you support our public schools, it’s hard to follow this legislative session without a deepening sense of paranoia. It didn’t help that the session began with the disclosure of 18 pages of emails exchanged by a Republican Senate cabal plotting the ouster of last session’s leaders. They saw the ouster as a “purge” of moderates in their own party, something essential to the advancement of their priorities. What are those priorities? Only two were mentioned in the emails, both threats to public education: vouchers and charter schools.
The cabal’s coup was successful, but once their emails became public, they had some ‘splainin’ to do. They hastily caucused to assure their miffed colleagues – and us – that there’s really nothing to worry about. “We like diversity of opinion,” they said. “Our only agenda is to pass a sustainable budget.”
On the surface, everything seems much more civilized and sane this session than last. Republican legislators don’t badger public education advocates during hearings. They don’t make wacky remarks revealing an even wackier philosophy during committee deliberations. They just bide their time and quietly cast their votes. Sane. Civilized. And scary. “Stepford Wives” scary.
Relax, my Republican friends tell me. Look at Senator Jones’ school funding bill! Look at the bipartisan support he’s garnered! Look at the buy-in by the entire alphabet soup of education associations! Look at the money it would bring to public education! I’m looking. And mainly I’m liking. But I’m distracted by something else.
Six bills to privatize public education! All but one sponsored by young Republicans vying to carry one of these slop jars so they can impress the new, ultra-conservative leadership. All six bills use slight-of-hand to thwart our constitution and divert public funds to private education. Some use a voucher set-up, applying public funds to a private option – a private option without the statutory and constitutional requirements of public schools.
One bill poses as a charitable contribution, allowing you to deduct $550 in private school tuition from the bottom line of your tax form. Oddly, you don’t have to be the parent of the student, and you can fund any number of students. So that rich guy from Bozeman who recently donated $4 million to fund scholarships for private schools? He could write off the entire $4 million from his state tax liability if he spread it evenly among every private school student in Montana. Quite the coincidence! But maybe I’m just being paranoid.
Three of the bills are charter school bills – bills that create alternatives to public education that aren’t bound by the same rules that public schools are. They don’t have to serve all kids, regardless of race, ability, or disability. They don’t have to have licensed teachers, meet accreditation requirements, or comply with the hundreds of legislated rules for public schools. In fact, the only thing public about them is that they use public funds, over which the taxpayers and locally elected boards have absolutely no control.
All these bills direct funds and students away from public schools. But in Montana, why? Our public schools are high-performing, among the highest-performing in the nation. For decades, our public schools have struggled to get adequate funding. How is this struggle resolved by diverting millions and millions of public dollars to private schools? And as a practical matter, most of Montana’s communities are so small there’s no way they could create a private option there.
Clearly, the Stepford legislators have drunk the out-of-state kool-aid. Using Florida data, cribbing from national conservative boilerplates, and accompanied by New York lawyers, they mouth benign-sounding platitudes. “Public schools serve most students well,” they say. “But some students just need a different choice.” My response: “If you don’t like the choices in your public schools, work with your local school board to create new ones, ones that are held up to the light of day and that serve the public interest.”
“It’s not just that,” the Stepford legislators say. “Public schools are too weighed down by rules and bureaucracy to be innovative.” My response: “Then quit making new rules and creating new bureaucracies! Don’t create a whole new system without rules while you create new new rules every session that create new layers of bureaucracy and burden your truly public schools with time-consuming, expensive, and frankly stupid tasks … like poring through every textbook in the district for sexual content and chasing 8,000 parents around to get permission slips for sex education.”
Public education advocates are pleading with this legislature not to weaken our public schools. Our schools don’t just educate a public – they create one. They create the common culture and shared experiences that have been the glue of Montana communities since statehood. But the Stepford brood just gives us that patient, glassy-eyed stare. “You’re acting paranoid,” they say. “Of course we support public education.” I’d like to believe that. But sometimes when you’re paranoid, they really are out to get you.
This is Mary Sheehy Moe of Great Falls, retired but still supporting free, quality public education in Montana.