Montana Education Experts Answer Questions About Democracy, Teacher Pay, ‘Equity’ – Daily Montanan
With the precarious situation of the government in the United States, are the children of Montana learning the principles of democracy? And are homeschoolers still meeting educational standards?
“We’re kind of in a crisis in this country,” said Lorraine Bond, who identified as an educator and social worker in Missoula. “And if the kids don’t understand what we’re talking about, we’ll never be at the same table.”
Bond posed questions Monday at a City Club Missoula forum focused on the state of public education in Montana. A panel of education experts addressed these and other questions about Indigenous representation in education, teacher compensation in the state, and the controversy around the term “equity.”
McCall Flynn, executive director of the Montana Board of Public Education, said the board is currently reviewing accreditation standards. Many school districts already require civics and government through social studies, she said, but there is push for a graduation requirement.
Regarding the homeschool option, Lance Melton said Montana has historically had about 10% of its student population choosing alternatives outside of public schools, typically around 3,000 students at the home or in a private school.
“Although it was up initially during COVID, I actually think we’re pretty proud that enrollment has come back strong this past school year,” said Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association.
He said the aim is to provide opportunities for people to participate in public education “to the extent that they choose”, and to ensure high quality when they do.
Repeatedly, panelists highlighted the power of local school boards in Montana. Representative David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said community members can have in-depth discussions with their administrators, including about citizenship and tax literacy requirements.
And he said school boards can act quickly.
“This is where the action is, folks. It’s with your local school board,” said Bedey, chair of the 2021 education committee in the Montana Legislative Assembly.
The event at the DoubleTree drew approximately 100 people, including participants of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders Initiative sponsored by the U.S. State Department through the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana .
Pranav Krishna Prasad, from Singapore, asked how well Indigenous peoples are represented on school boards in Montana, and panelists shared examples. The City Club’s mission is to educate citizens on issues vital to the community, and Monday’s forum was titled “Schooling: Perspectives on Public Education in Montana.”
“We work on it every day,” Melton said.
He mentioned his own association’s Indian school board caucus, which he described as active and dynamic. He said he formed in part because Article X of the Montana Constitution states that Montanese engage in education to preserve the cultural integrity of American Indians.
Flynn said the Board of Public Education does not currently have a Native American member, but it did in the past. She also said the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education advises the council and the Office of Public Instruction.
On the education committee, Bedey said Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, is working on Indian language preservation. Bedey said he expects the 2023 Legislature to pass a bill to strengthen it, which he says is necessary for Montana to fulfill its constitutional duty.
From the audience, Monica Tranel, the Democratic candidate for the United States House of Representatives in Montana’s New Western District, said she kept hearing that teachers‘ salaries were the lowest in the country. She pointed to salaries in Thompson Falls at $26,000 and Bozeman at $44,000.
By comparison, the Bozeman Real Estate Group reports that the median cost of a single-family home in Bozeman was $871,500 this month.
“How can (teachers) make this work with the cost of living and housing? Tranel said, running against Republican Ryan Zinke and Libertarian John Lamb.
Melton said giving each teacher a $10,000 raise would cost $111 million a year, but he said a few different rankings were part of the picture. When it comes to starting teacher salaries, he said, Montana ranks 48th in the nation.
However, he said Montana increased the average teacher salary from 48th in the nation to 28th or 29th from 2006 to 2018. In doing so, he said public school boards increased teacher salaries over the course of this period faster than anywhere else in the country outside of Iowa and Nebraska.
He said he would like to have more money for teachers, including for health insurance, but the job is complicated and involves collective bargaining and district priorities. Legislation from Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, helped last session, he said, and it could also be a good model for the future.
“It’s something we’re working on vigorously with others,” Melton said.
Alka Kaur Sandhu of Malaysia said she read that the words “equity” and “ethics” were under threat in Montana public school mandates. She wanted to know how the state planned to protect students such as people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and those of non-European American descent.
Flynn thanked her for the difficult question and said she could not speak for any board member. However, she said the council’s role is to set the basic standards for education and that it has revised many rules over the past year.
“While I can’t necessarily explain why words like ‘equity’ are perhaps being removed and eventually replaced with ‘equal opportunity’, which is in our constitution, I can tell you that we still understand very well our role to set those minimum standards,” Flynn said.