A guest’s perspective: Everyone has a stake in public education | Columnists
You don’t have to be a parent to care about your local school. But recently, groups have sprung up in Montana that refer to themselves as the “parental rights movement,” as if they have more of a stake in public education than those who don’t have children in the school system. The “parental rights movement” is a relatively small group of people with an ax to grind and clearly does not represent most parents. Recently they attacked masks, vaccines and the way we teach history. In their opinion, they should be able to impose school policies, because they know what is best for “their children”.
But they don’t have any more “rights” than the rest of us. Montana schools are funded by the taxes we all pay. There are approximately 145,000 students in public schools in Montana while the total population exceeds 1 million people. This means that many people without children in the system are paying for schools.
And the problem goes deeper than taxpayers’ money. Despite right-wing protests that schools shouldn’t teach “values,” the truth is that’s exactly what an education system is supposed to do. Simple things like “wait your turn”, “help your neighbour”, and “be a good sportsman” are all practical applications of the values we need to function in society. Additionally, schools provide the basic skills needed to be a productive citizen. We all have a stake in the performance of our schools.
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Perhaps the greatest achievement of American democracy is the creation of a public education system open to all citizens. Historically, education was only available to the wealthy. The rest of us have been moved to the bottom of the economy to provide the cheap labor needed for economic expansion. More than anything else, our universal system of public education has set the stage for the rapid growth and expansion of the American economy. Despite criticism from the far right, American public education is a resounding success.
Unfortunately, schools are fodder for right-wing political forces. There are those who don’t want their children (or anyone else for that matter) exposed to ideas, information, and people they don’t like. There is also a lot of money in the public school system that many people would like to take for their own private ventures (i.e. charter schools). Others want to strangle public education by cutting property taxes to benefit their own pocketbooks. These controversies build a restless base of political activists. It’s no coincidence that the anti-tax mob, in addition to Republican officials like Elsie Arntzen and Austin Knudsen, have entered the fray, urging people to challenge and even sue their local school.
None of this is new. Thirty years ago, the bugbear was “Goals 2000”. Then came people, like our governor, who wanted to teach Christianity as a science. Others didn’t want education on human sexuality, and now we even hear of some people who want to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust. The internet (which wouldn’t exist without American public education) provides an unfiltered platform for these people to meet, swap stories, build conspiracy theories, and mobilize their followers.
The controversy surrounding the education of our children makes it more difficult to teach children. Local school board meetings turn into a gladiatorial arena of angry culture warriors armed with signs and megaphones. They come to assert their point of view and intimidate their fellow citizens who sit, without pay, on the school board. They are, in a word, bullies. As we all learned in public school. . . we have to stand up to the bullies.
Ken Toole had three children who were graduating from public schools in Montana. He currently has 2 grandchildren in public schools in Montana. He served six years in the Montana Senate and 4 years on the Public Service Commission. He is currently the president of Big Sky 55+, a nonprofit group that advocates for older adults in Montana.