Teachers Unions’ Political Power Stunts Education Reform in Montana

Published June 30, 2015

Some Montanans now have access to education tax credits, after Senate Bill 410 passed into law in May, but school choice remains extremely limited in the state.

SB 410 was the only school choice bill to pass this legislative session, and it became law without Gov. Steve Bullock’s (D) signature.

Legislators introduced a variety of education bills this session, including measures for Common Core repeal, charter schools, data privacy for students, standardized testing reform, and greater local control. All but two failed to reach the governor’s desk, and of those two, Bullock vetoed one and the other became law after a 10-day waiting period, when Bullock neither signed nor vetoed it. 

Political, Judicial Impediments

Sen. Kris Hansen (R-Havre) says it is difficult to make changes in education policy in Montana because of the influence of teachers unions and a court interpretation of the state constitution.

“In Montana, if there’s any bill that isn’t 100 percent supported by the teachers’ union, the first claim is that it’s unconstitutional,” Hansen said. “The unconstitutional claim falls on a segment of the Montana constitution.”

In 1989, Helena Elementary School District No. 1 v. State resulted in the Montana Supreme Court ruling Montana’s school finance system violated the state’s constitution. The ruling still hampers policymakers working to reform the state’s education system, Hansen says.

“A Helena district court judge decided the Legislature has no authority but to fund what the board of education [decides],” Hansen said. “It was never challenged. So when the union says the state’s legislature can’t repeal Common Core, they wave that lawsuit around and claim the board has sole authority over standards and we, the legislature, have no authority over that.

“The Montana Legislature has been totally nullified in terms of influence in public education, and the moderate Republicans have joined with the Democrats to vote for recent school funding measures that only enhance that by causing inflationary increases every year to school funding,” Hansen said.

“Our constitution gives a division of power over education,” Hansen continued. “It is [the state legislature’s] responsibility to establish a free system of public schools. The next clause establishes the [Montana Board of Public Education] and gives the board general supervision over the public school system. That’s it. We’re supposed to be a local-control state, but that is totally broken in Montana.” 

Fighting Against Common Core

Three years ago, Rep. Debra Lamm (R-Livingston) founded Montanans Against Common Core. Lamm sponsored the repeal bill in play this session.

“The bill was essentially written to repeal Common Core, but also to put in place a new process for adopting any further standards and to get out of Smarter Balanced testing,” Lamm said. “I broke out my data privacy bill. I thought that would be a good one to keep separate.”

Testimony relating to Lamm’s data collection privacy bill resulted in several admissions by the state’s Office of Public Instruction.

“Our office of public instruction admitted it is collecting first and last names, personal identifiers, and test scores and [the information is] going to third party companies,” Lamm said.

“Once I saw who was on the committee, I knew it wouldn’t get out of the Senate,” Lamm said. “Democrats were stacked with educators who wouldn’t buck the system.”

 Charter and ESA Bills Fail

“We have a very good charter school bill,” Hansen said. “We’ve taken all the good from charter school bills around the country and added a provision that charter schools would not have to adhere to Common Core. The moderate Republicans will not buck the unions on the charter schools.”

The charter school bill left the House but did not make it out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee.

“They say that charter schools hurt public schools, but provide no definition of what that means,” Hansen said.

Hansen says the education savings accounts (ESAs) bill was the number one school choice bill for proponents this session, a culmination of several years of work.

Previous versions allowed universal eligibility, but this session’s bill was restricted to special-needs students and their siblings, built around a backpack funding mechanism.

“The ESA bill was our preeminent bill, and the bill moved quickly through the House and off the Senate floor, but the governor vetoed it,” Hansen said. “It was a very good bill.”

“I knew he was going to veto it,” said Sen. Don Jones (R-Billings). “He is so paid for and bought by the union they pretty much tell him what to do. He has been so anti-choice, as the unions have. I think this was the first time we got something like that to his desk.”

Plans for Future

“I may not bring the [Common Core repeal bill] back in the exact same form,” Lamm said. “I may go back to my original strategy of breaking things out separately. I think the one piece we are most likely to get through is the testing. … The general feeling is that the testing piece would change or go away.”

“The thing we have to do in Montana is to educate the people,” Jones said. “When you get into these smaller communities, the first thing they’re afraid of is [school choice] getting their school shut down and often the school is the backbone of the community and the only thing bringing in revenue. We need to make sure we focus on the bigger communities, like Billings, Great Falls, and the schools that don’t [carry] that perception.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Image by Ryan Hyde.