While state Republicans talk plenty about their plans for development, they also have detailed goals for something else that doesn’t get as much attention: Montana’s education system.

From public schools to state colleges, the GOP wants to shake things up, with an eye toward creating what it calls a more diverse, effective system of educating Montana’s children and young adults.

“We have not gone far enough to get to the place that we need to get to, to build a model that is focused on kids, to (foster) their educational development,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill, in an interview Friday at the state Republican Party convention in Missoula.

Hill favors controversial proposals such as charter schools – which Montana currently does not have – and state tax credits to help parents send their kids to private schools.

He says these proposals will create more options for parents to send their kids to schools where they can flourish – and that may not always be the public schools.

Hill and most Republicans also believe they can better fund education if they unleash the state’s potential for developing natural resources, such as coal, oil and gas.

But GOP education plans don’t start and end with charter and private schools and energy development.

The party wants to give public schools more flexibility – “deregulate” them, in a sense – and also create an ambitious system of measuring how schools are doing, so they can compete for students and therefore strive for better outcomes.

This approach was front-and-center Friday in a packed, stuffy conference room at the state convention, where the party’s Education Platform Committee hashed out the vision of public education that Republicans want.

Its draft language, which will be finalized Saturday, said the GOP supports giving local school districts more “discretion” to teach how they want to teach, as long as they meet certain state standards.

Also within that language is support for a system of collecting data on student outcomes and making those data available to parents and the public.


Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, a big proponent of this system, explained it by using a farm/business analogy.

If a farmer bought the most expensive seed and equipment, you wouldn’t say that farmer had succeeded – until you saw whether he or she had produced a good crop and turned a profit, he said.

Montana schools need a measurement system so parents and the schools themselves can see how they’re doing – and know where and how things need to be improved, he said.

“Every day I have to be able to look at my profit and loss and my income statement,” Jones said. “If I cannot see how I’m doing, I cannot improve. … We need to measure student outcome if we truly want to have improvement.”

Hill said Montana ranks “dead last” among the states in tracking academic achievement among its children, and needs the type of data system supported by Jones and others.

If Montana had such a system, it can measure how the Republican, bottom-up approach is doing, Hill said – and Republicans believe people will be pleasantly surprised.

Of course, Montana’s education system also costs money – and the GOP often talks about cutting taxes in the same breath as it talks about improving education.

Hill doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive, saying Republicans want first to boost widespread development of natural resources, which will boost income and wages across the state.

That boost will enable Montana to rely less on property taxes to finance public schools, and thus reduce the property tax burden, he said.

“If we want to pay teachers more, we’ve got to attract the jobs that pay everybody else more, and that broadens the tax base,” Hill said. “We want to advocate for policies that are game-changers, and through that broaden the tax base and increase (money for schools).”

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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