Redefining Public Schools
"With the introduction of education freedom laws, the legislature has fulfilled this mandate by expanding the system to encompass tangible options for parents that would otherwise be unattainable."
When visualizing a public school, many conjure an image of a traditional, neighborhood institution, similar from one place to another and run by the local school district. However, Montana’s education system has changed significantly in recent years, challenging our perceptions of public schools. This transformation is driven by the state’s evolving approach to school choice and funding. So, what exactly is a public school in Montana today?
The Constitution’s Guarantee:
Montana’s state constitution emphasizes the goal of providing an education system that “develops the full educational potential of each person.” However, the state has witnessed declining educational performance as reflected in NAEP scores and recurring low scores on its own state assessment. The problem lies in the uniformity of outcomes across districts when compared to the state’s average, highlighting that part of the constitution’s guarantee is falling flat. So, yes, the guarantee of “equality of educational opportunity” is being upheld, as the schools clearly manifest sameness, resulting in highly uniform student outcomes. But, meeting the guarantee requires more than offering uniformity; it demands meaningful improvement to reach the full potential of each person.
The constitution also charges the legislature with providing “…a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools.” With the introduction of education freedom laws, the legislature has fulfilled this mandate by expanding the system to encompass tangible options for parents that would otherwise be unattainable. The constitution does not stipulate that all schools must be government-run; instead, it allows the legislature to provide “other educational institutions…as it deems desirable.”
Expanding the Definition:
Montana introduced the Tax Credit Scholarship in 2022, allowing taxpayers to allocate their tax obligations to Scholarship Granting Organizations. These organizations then allow students to choose a private school to receive their scholarship. Though private, the participating schools expand education offerings to a broader group of students in their region who typically would not be able to afford private school.
Additionally, Montana’s Education Savings Account will soon serve a similar purpose. In this case, public money intended for education will be directed to a trust managed by the Office of Public Instruction and used to reimburse parents for educational expenses such as: private school tuition, independent specialists’ clinics, private tutoring, out-of-state virtual curriculum and other approved educational costs. If parents choose the tuition option, their child becomes a private school student; if they use the funds for other educational expenses, they will then be homeschooling because Montana mandates compulsory enrollment for children aged 7-16.
Furthermore, there is great potential for public school students to redirect a portion of their per-pupil allotment to a Community Choice Charter School, pending legal challenges, thus, expanding public school options.
In this evolving landscape, Montana is redefining what constitutes a public education.
A Better Understanding of “Public Schools”:
To embrace the integration of new laws, we should redefine “public schools” as institutions supported with public funds designed to educate Montana’s students in alignment with the constitutional guarantee. This definition goes beyond government-operated schools.
Ashley Berner, in her book Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, reports that many democratic nations allocate public funds for education without restricting families to a single state-operated public school. Rather, they allow money to follow students to their schools of choice, regardless of the operator. This includes faith-based schools, independent schools, choice schools, in-district charter schools or traditional district schools.
Education pluralism recognizes that education is a public good and people differ in their preferences for how to educate their children. It empowers parents by making them responsible for the learning outcomes of their own children because they have freely chosen the school. Accountability lies in student outcomes and parental support rather than in prescriptive regulations with no monitoring or consequences for failure. Education pluralism acknowledges that education is, in fact, an enculturation process, so parents should have the freedom to choose the values, perspectives and curriculum with which their children are educated. Berner notes, “Uniformity breeds indoctrination of the worst kind, because it is implicit, unacknowledged, and occluded.”
Tolerance becomes essential in an education pluralism model because people’s preferences vary greatly and not everyone is going to like or respect each school’s offering. Sadly, the current single-option, government-run school led by a local school board as the only tuition-free option in town often fosters division within communities. While the majority is satisfied with its own preferences, the minority must suffer at their will.