Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) With the tenuous state of affairs in government in the United States, are Montana children learning the tenets of democracy? And are students being homeschooled still meeting educational standards?

“We’re kind of in a crisis in this country,” said Lorraine Bond, who identified herself as an educator and social worker in Missoula. “And if kids don’t understand what we’re talking about, we’ll never be on the same table.”

Bond asked questions Monday at a City Club Missoula forum focused on the state of public education in Montana. A panel of education experts addressed those questions and others about Indigenous representation in education, teacher pay in the state, and controversy around the term “equity.”

McCall Flynn, executive director of the Montana Board of Public Education, said the board currently is revising standards of accreditation. Many school districts already require civics and government through social studies, she said, but there’s a push for a graduation requirement.

As for the homeschool option, Lance Melton said Montana has always had around 10 percent of its student population choose alternatives outside the public schools, typically 3,000 students or so at home or in private school.

“Although that spiked up initially during COVID, I actually think we’re rather proud of the fact that the enrollments came roaring back this last school year,” said Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association.

He said the goal is to provide opportunities for people to participate in public education “to the extent that they’re willing,” and to ensure high quality when they do so.

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Several times, panelists stressed the power of local school boards in Montana. Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said community members can have robust discussions with their trustees, including about requirements for civics and fiscal literacy.

And he said school boards can act quickly.

“That’s where the action is, folks. It’s with your local school board,” said Bedey, chair of the 2021 education committee in the Montana Legislature.

The event at the DoubleTree drew roughly 100 people, including participants in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of State through the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.

Pranav Krishna Prasad, of Singapore, asked how well Indigenous people are represented on education boards in Montana, and the panelists shared examples. City Club has a mission to inform citizens on issues vital to the community, and the forum Monday was called “Getting Schooled: Perspectives on Public Education in Montana.”

“We work on it every day,” Melton said.

He pointed to his own association’s Indian School Board Caucus, which he described as active and vibrant. He said it formed in part because Article X of the Montana Constitution says Montanans are committed in education to preserving the cultural integrity of American Indians.

Flynn said the Board of Public Education doesn’t currently have a Native American member, but it has in the past. She also said the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education advises the board 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 anticipates the 2023 Legislature will take up a bill to strengthen it, which he said is necessary for Montana to fulfill its constitutional duty.

From the audience, Monica Tranel, the Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Montana’s new western district, said she keeps hearing teacher salaries are 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 the median cost of a single family home in Bozeman was at $871,500 this month.

“How can (teachers) make that work with the cost of living and housing?” said Tranel, running against Republican Ryan Zinke and Libertarian John Lamb.

Melton said giving every teacher a $10,000 bump would cost $111 million a year, but he said a couple of different rankings are part of the picture. When it comes to starting teacher pay, he said, Montana sits at 48th in the nation.

However, he said Montana has pushed up average teacher pay from 48th in the nation to 28th or 29th from 2006 to 2018. In doing so, he said public school boards increased teacher pay in that period faster than anywhere else in the country besides Iowa and Nebraska.

He said he would love to have more money for teachers, including for health insurance, but the work is complicated and includes collective bargaining and district priorities. Legislation from Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, helped last session, he said, and it might be a good model for the future, too.

“It’s something that we’re working on vigorously with others,” Melton said.

Alka Kaur Sandhu, of Malaysia, said she read that the words “equity” and “ethics” are in jeopardy in public school mandates in Montana. She wanted to know how the state planned to protect students such as those with disabilities, those who are LGBTQ, and those of non-European American descent.

Flynn thanked her for the tough question and said she couldn’t speak for any board members. However, she said the board’s role is to set the basic standards of education, and it had been revising many rules during the course of the last year.

“While I can’t necessarily explain why maybe words like ‘equity’ are being removed and possibly replaced by ‘equality of opportunity,’ which is in our constitution, I can tell you that we still very much understand our role to set those minimum standards,” Flynn said.