In his 2016 book, The End of Average, Todd Rose recounts a story from the 1950’s when the U.S. Air Force faced a major challenge. Pilots were struggling to control their planes leading to serious accidents and fatalities. Initial suspicions were that the jets were too advanced or that pilot training was insufficient, but the real issue lay in the general design of the cockpits.

The Air Force conducted a study of over 4,000 pilots on 10 physical dimensions of cockpit design. The assumption was that, if cockpits fit the average dimensions of a pilot, the majority of pilots would be accommodated. Surprisingly, not a single pilot out of the 4,000 fit within the average dimensions!

This revelation was startling because it challenged the prevailing assumption that a one-size-fits-all design works for most people. The conclusion was clear – designing cockpits based on the “average” pilot was unworkable because such specifications fit no one.

Over the last six months, we have demonstrated that the state of Montana is struggling with a similar problem in education. Through a highly prescriptive set of laws, rules, and agreements, the state education establishment is attempting to treat everyone the same – students, families, teachers, and administrators. Yet under such a “unitary” approach, student achievement outcomes have been sinking for at least 12 years.

In 2023, Montana’s legislature opened the door to a fundamentally different approach. With the passage of a series of bills that support education freedom, there is a historic opportunity to transition from a unitary system to one that embraces pluralism. According to Ashley Rogers Berner, the author of No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Public Education, education pluralism is defined as “changing the structure of public education so that state governments fund and hold accountable a wide variety of schools, including religions ones, but do not necessarily operate them.”

Under this new approach, parents can choose freely from among a variety of different high-quality education options. New schools of choice can be started outside prescriptive district and state regulations. Families can use public funds to purchase the specialized education services that their children need.

Yet even with the laws in place, such a change will not happen on its own. It requires a basic shift in how families, educators, civic leaders, donors, and all community members define and participate in education. Montanans must begin to see education as an integrated part of a healthy and prosperous “civil society.”

The remainder of this article will describe what it would look like for Montana to complete each of these five steps.