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Article X of the Montana Constitution guarantees citizens a public education, and it charges the Legislature to fairly distribute the state’s share of funding to support elementary and secondary schools.

The article came up during a panel discussion on the second day of the statewide educators’ conference in Missoula on Friday. The panel included Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau; Sharon Carroll, chair of the state Board of Public Education; and Shannon O’Brien, the governor’s policy adviser on education, among others.

Montana’s public school system, they suggested, is under attack by special interests ranging from supporters of privatization and tax vouchers to advocates for publicly funding charter schools.

“The opponents of public education haven’t read our Constitution,” said Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers. “Should a bill like these ever pass the Legislature, we’ll be in court to discuss that issue.”

Friday’s talk covered a wide variety of issues, including the role of the Montana Board of Regents, early education, and state programs like Graduation Matters and Indian Education for All.

But it also explored the role of publicly elected school boards, the implementation of state educational policies and perceived threats to public education in Montana, including an attack on Common Core testing standards.

Juneau said the standards were carefully shaped and implemented by the state’s teachers and education leaders to fit Montana. She said other ideas passed down from Washington, D.C., have been dismissed as a poor fit for the state.

“We have pushed back on the federal government, but a lot of people don’t see that,” Juneau said. “We’re different from New York. We’re not Chicago. We have a positive system in Montana, and it’s pretty phenomenal.”

Ryan Zinke, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House, has expressed his dislike of Common Core, though he also has said that he would support the standards if local school boards voted to do so as well.

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Speaking at a rally in Red Lodge on Thursday, Zinke called Common Core a government program that represents just one more federal regulation.

“Two things made America great: innovation and the ability to think outside the box, and Common Core is destroying this,” the Carbon County News quoted Zinke as saying. “We need a holistic approach to education or Common Core will quickly become the lowest common denominator.”

Juneau dismissed such criticism as the “flavor of the day” that opponents of public education are using to attack and defund the system. If it wasn’t Common Core, she said, it would be something else.

Other efforts such as privatization and tax vouchers continue to come up, she said.

“These are bills we see every time in the Legislature, and they’re gaining traction here and there,” Juneau said. “Those types of issues always come up, and they often use the most vulnerable students as the basis for their arguments.”

Feaver views the push toward privatization as a drive toward profiteering and ideology. He said the state already allows for charter schools, though the option hasn’t been pursued by advocates.

“Our Montana Constitution is profound in what it says about where tax dollars can go, who controls them, and how they’re expended on behalf of our students,” Fever said.

Diane Burke, director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition and past president of the Montana School Boards Association, agreed.

“Another element the privatization folks seem to miss is that our Board of Public Education already has rules in place for charter schools,” she said. “Those charter schools need to be under the control of a school district and locally elected school trustees. It’s the part they don’t like.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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