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Witness says violations rising at alarming rate; state lawyer argues funding isn't to blame

HELENA - Declining state funding for public education fuels accreditation violations, drives experienced teachers into early retirement and sends Montana teaching graduates out of state, a top education official testified in District Court on Wednesday.

Kirk Miller, chairman of the state Board of Public Education and superintendent of the Havre Public Schools, spent 2 1/2 hours on the witness stand detailing the havoc declining state support for public education has wreaked on the system.

Some 11 school districts and education groups, organized through the Montana Quality Education Coalition, are suing the state over what they call inadequate state support for public primary and secondary education.

They want the courts to force the state Legislature to define what a quality education is and then fund it.

"If we fail to work together now to provide a quality system of education, it will take a generation to recover from the erosion we are currently facing," Miller quoted

from his deposition.

Miller, under question from the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Jim Molloy, told Judge Jeffrey Sherlock that he's very concerned about the sharp increase in school accreditation violations that have occurred over

the last decade.

For example, about 6 percent of the state's middle schools were in violation of state standards in the early 1990s. In 2003, that figure reached 25 percent.

Overall, some 20 percent of schools don't meet state standards.

"You look at it from a parent's perspective, and one out of five schools are unable to meet accreditation standards," said Miller, father of a fifth-grader. "I don't think any parent would want that for their child."

But under cross-examination by state Solicitor Brian Morris, Miller acknowledged that schools' began racking up accreditation violations during the same decade in which state standards were increased.

For example, students are now required to take more math, science and social studies classes to graduate, Morris said.

Also, schools that were granted accreditation deferrals were not considered in violation a decade ago; now, they are.

"It's potentially misleading to say there's been a huge uptick in the number of districts not in compliance," Morris said.

While Miller said declining state funding has fueled accreditation violations across Montana, he also said the inability of state support to keep pace with inflation has scared some potential teachers away from careers in Montana.

Some 70 percent of Montana teaching graduates seek work out of state, he testified. And those who do stay earn the 47th lowest teaching wage in the nation.

Miller said the teacher drain has even affected the Havre Public Schools, one of the state's larger districts.

In 1996, when Havre elementary had an opening for a teacher, between 60 and 100 applications for the job poured in, Miller said. About 40 percent of those applicants were qualified.

In 2003, five elementary positions opened up, but only 15 applications came in for the jobs. Of those 15, five were qualified. Miller said the recruitment problem is exacerbated in smaller districts, where geography becomes a factor.

Many schools' accreditation problems relate to their inability to attract qualified staff, especially math, science, art and music teachers, Miller added.

Despite the state funding problems and inadequate "Band-Aid" fixes, Miller said, the "good will and fortitude" of Montanans has kept the state's public education system afloat. And, he added, the can-do attitude of communities has allowed administrators to hide the real problems from the public.

"What we've been able to push below the surface for a number of years will rear its ugly head," Miller warned.

Jack Copps, executive director of the coalition that organized those suing the state, called Miller's testimony on this second trial day "compelling."

"Quite frankly, I think the state fails in proving the standard of quality is actually in place," said Copps, a retired education administrator, during a recess. "The evidence we have - 20 percent of our schools in violation of accreditation standards - is proof we are not able to satisfy that standard."

Miller didn't argue that Montana doesn't have a quality public education system, but said the system could - and should - be improved.

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