Montana parents want and need choice in K-12 education. Fifty percent of Montanans would choose an option other than traditional public school for their kids, if possible (see EdChoice.org/MTpoll). So it’s not surprising that the ACE Scholarship program launched earlier this year was wildly oversubscribed.
ACE provides partial funding to families with financial need so they can access the best educational setting for their child. Using ACE scholarships, this fall 500 Montana families have benefited. Sadly, many kids remain on the waiting list.
One Montana ACE scholarship recipient was bullied in a government school and his grades suffered. His mom said, “The scholarship was a life changer for my son,” who is now in a school that works for him.
While running RightNow, a lot of under-qualified people, who lacked a proper education, applied for open jobs. Greatly concerned, I now spend about one-third of my time working on K-12 education issues. I think this is the most serious issue facing our state and country.
In Montana, only about 80 percent of kids graduate from high school. Each class of dropouts will earn $300 million less over their working lifetime when compared with graduates, which is a drag on our economy and keeps low-income families in poverty. High school dropouts are more likely to go to jail and consume social services, placing a higher burden on taxpayers. In addition, of those who graduate from high school in Montana, only 29 percent are “proficient” in reading, writing, math and science (based on ACT scores). That leaves the other 71 percent of graduates under-qualified for work or college.
We can do better in Montana.
Some would argue that we need to spend more money on K-12 education; however, the state already spends $11,530 per student per year. On a national level, the U.S. spends more than any country in the world per student (except Switzerland), yet we continue to fall behind other countries in academic performance. More money is not the answer.
There is one thing missing that would improve K-12 education in Montana: parental choice.
The concept is simple. Parents know what education is best for their kids, so let them choose. Today, 21 states have school choice programs that allow parents to choose from public and private school options. Montana is not one of them.
As every parent knows, each child is different. In education, one size does not fit all. We have about 100 private schools in the state, yet there are no state programs to help parents, regardless of income, choose these schools. When parents have the ability to leave if a school is not working for their child, all schools perform to a higher standard. Competition works in our everyday lives and it does work in education, too.
Opponents argue that school choice will destroy public schools; however, in states that have adopted school choice programs, public schools have been motivated to improve academic performance. Also, opponents argue that school choice robs public schools of the best kids; in reality, if children are doing well, they have no reason to leave. Finally, opponents argue that school choice takes money from public schools. But, because most costs are variable in education, as long as the school choice scholarship offered to the student departing the government school is less than the school’s variable costs, school choice increases spending per child for those remaining in the government school (see EdChoice.org/NationalFiscalDistricts).
School choice works. It improves academic performance in all schools, both public and private. For the success of our children and the future of Montana, vote for candidates that support K-12 school choice.
Greg Gianforte was the founder and CEO of RightNow Technologies. He now serves on the boards of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, ACE Scholarships, Association of Classical and Christian Schools, and Petra Academy. Last week he received the Pioneer in Industry Award at the University of Montana. This guest column is related to the speech he gave in the Dennison Theatre after he received the award.