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Montana code of ethics for educators erupted with just the addition of ‘equity’

Kelly Elder, a sixth grade teacher in Helena, never expected that including the word “equity” in the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics would elicit strong opposition.

“Absolutely not,” said Elder, chair of the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council. “ … I was completely surprised by an outpouring of testimonials, many people wanting to speak and upset with this idea of equity.”

The Council updates the code of ethics every five years or so, and it’s a document its members describe as an aspirational guide for educators, a set of ideals for the professionals working in the field. For example, it states the ethical educator “makes the well-being of students the foundation of all decisions and actions.”

Earlier this year, the term “equity” came under fire from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who blasted the Council for including it in the updated code of ethics and called for promoting “equality” instead. Then, last month, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras pressed the Montana Board of Public Education to declare the Council’s revision had no effect.

When the controversy first started last year, Elder, who has served on the Council for roughly a decade, went back to check definitions to see what he might have missed, and he read that equity in the dictionary is freedom from bias or favoritism. The Council advises the Board of Public Education on issues including ones related to certification standards and ethics.

“The bottom line is that Montana has one of the strongest public education systems within the United States,” said Elder, who teaches geography at CR Anderson Middle School. “And we have an obligation as professional educators to continue that strong historical standing of strong quality public education. And I think we need to do it free of bias and favoritism.” 

But the conflict escalated at the Board of Public Ed meeting in March. Legal counsel for the Board advised the body to refrain from updating its code of ethics agenda item on the spot from an information item to an action item despite pressure from Juras to act at the meeting. At the time, Board Chairwoman Tammy Lacey said the move might cut out people who would have turned up to comment if they knew in advance that a vote would take place.

Elder, who is typically in the classroom with students during Board of Public Ed meetings, said he looked at the agenda, saw the code of ethics update, and didn’t believe he needed to attend: “Looking at the agenda, (I) didn’t feel it was necessary given it was to be informational in nature.”

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The controversy has raised a couple of points of debate, both substantive and procedural, in addition to the on-the-spot agenda change. The ramifications of adding “equity” to the code is one, as is the weight of the code, or whether it has the force of policy, and which body has the authority to adopt the code of ethics.

Elder said he figured the decision to change the agenda showed some naïveté on the part of Board members because the state of Montana mandates the way boards conduct their activities, and it requires adequate notice to the public: “To be honest, the March meeting took me by complete surprise.”

Now, he and other members of the Council are charged with presenting the change they had made earlier to the Board of Public Ed for consideration at a future meeting. In a unanimous vote, the Council had replaced the phrase “understands and respects diversity” with the phrase “demonstrates an understanding of educational equity and inclusion and respects human diversity.”

Elder agreed equality is a fundamental American ideal, and he said in his view, equity encompasses equality. He shared an example of equity and equality in education. Equality is when the teacher gives every student a test, he said; if one student can’t write, he said the teacher can test the student by having a verbal discussion to determine if the student has learned the concepts.

“That’s not equality,” Elder said. “That’s equity. And we need to provide the same opportunities to all Montana students, to every Montana student.”

Rob Watson, also on the Council and superintendent for Missoula County Public Schools, said educators first started talking about equity in the early 2000s under the federal No Child Left Behind act. They did so in the context of wanting to close achievement gaps and recognizing that not all children come to school with the same sets of skills and abilities.

“So as professionals, our job is to provide what they need to succeed,” said Watson, who this summer takes the executive director post with the School Administrators of Montana. “And that looks different for every kid.”

Equality means making sure children have the same options, he said, but equity means sometimes, you have to provide more for some kids who need it. That means more support for someone who has a learning disability, he said, but it also means someone who is gifted has the chance to continue to improve.

“Some kids need more than what everyone else needs in order to succeed,” Watson said.

Watson, who has been with the Council for six or so years, said it started working on the code of ethics update in spring 2021. He said the code isn’t used as a disciplinary tool, and unlike other states with lengthy codes, he said Montana’s is a single page teachers can hang on a wall as a reminder: “This is what great teachers aspire to.”

The first time he was certified as a teacher in Montana, the Office of Public Instruction sent him a copy of the code of ethics, and he himself has handed it out to teachers who are new to Montana or those who are just starting out.

“What I appreciate about the document is it’s written by educators for educators,” Watson said. “If you think about a code of ethics, that’s what you would want because we are holding each other to higher standards as professionals.”

In this particular update, he said a Council subcommittee of which he is a member decided there’s more to “diversity” that should be included in the code. In addition to equity, he said inclusion was important, although it’s a term educators have been familiar with because it’s a notion that’s important to children with learning disabilities.

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The authority of the Council is also in dispute. At the recent Board of Public Ed meeting, the lieutenant governor argued the Board was the body to formally adopt the code, not the Council, and Watson said she may be correct in that assessment.

The Board’s legal counsel is working on an opinion on the question of authority that will be released prior to the next meeting. (The Board is made up of gubernatorial appointments, and state statute sets the makeup of the Council, whose members are approved by the Board.)

Public education faces so many challenges, Elder said he wishes people weren’t getting bogged down in the idea of equity as a hot button political issue (the governor described the Council’s revisions as putting an “extreme political agenda” ahead of students).

Watson said he testified that the audience for the code of ethics needs to be considered as well: “It is intended for professional educators. And so while some of the language may not mean a whole lot to other folks, it means a lot to professional educators, and it is drafted by professional educators.”