Anti-School Choice Governor Narrowly Wins Reelection in Montana

Published December 30, 2016

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who said during a campaign speech he is against “privatizing education,” won a tight reelection race in November.

Montana has one school choice program, a tax credit scholarship enacted in 2015. All students in the state are eligible for the program, which had a $3 million cap in fiscal year 2016.

Montana’s teachers unions and the Network for Public Education publicly supported Bullock. Bullock said during a speech at the office of the Billings Education Association, a teachers union, in October 2016, “We support the right of all families to choose what they deem is best for their kids, but I don’t support any policy that’s going to take money from our public education system and privatize it.”

The Billings Gazette reported at the time Bullock “also chided his opponent, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, for his stances on private education” and “called for continued focus on public schools and cited the state’s high graduation rate, 86 percent, as a barometer for success in the system.”

Gianforte said during his campaign he favored giving parents more educational options.

Bullock defeated Gianforte by 2 percentage points in November 2016.

‘Playing to the Teachers Union’

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, says Bullock’s stance favors teachers unions.

“Gov. Bullock is just playing to the teachers union by maintaining a one-size-fits-all system,” Laszloffy said. “School choice is about providing options for at-risk students so that the 1,500 students who drop out of Montana’s schools each year will stay in school and complete their education. The governor talks as though an 86 percent graduation rate is a good thing. He needs to realize that 1,500 dropouts per year is nothing to brag about.

“School choice is an idea whose time has come,” Laszloffy said. “It’s working well in other states, and it can work here too. Parents want it, students want it, high-performing teachers want it, and so do legislators. The courts are even on our side. It’s time for the governor to get on board as well.”

Governor’s Comments ‘a Disservice’

David Herbst, state director of the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says Bullock’s position on education hurts students.

“Gov. Bullock’s comments are a disservice to those students who struggle in their current education environment,” Herbst said. “This shows how dedicated he is to protecting the status quo, by narrowly selecting information that supports his position, such as relatively high graduation rates, while ignoring other indicators, such as test scores and the need for college remedial training among our graduates.

“The school choice movement is about empowering families and students with the tools to find the right environment for their needs,” Herbst said. “We value a life of learning, not just getting people through a system. That is why we are proposing changes that we believe will improve educational outcomes for students currently struggling in Montana, both those who choose to leave their public school and those who remain.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.