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Cotton opinion: The rights of Montana parents deserve protection

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“The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Montana.” That’s a 2011 resolution expressed by the Montana Legislature. Lawmakers who voted to pass the measure include current Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale.

Supporting the right of parents to — “ahem” — parent seems like common sense. But just a month ago, eight public school officials found Arntzen’s support for parent rights in education cause to draft a letter of “no-confidence” in her leadership. A response letter praising Arntzen’s support of parents was signed by over 500 citizens, including many parents with children in public schools.

What has happened to pit parents against public school officials? One reason is the COVID-19 pandemic revealed to many parents for the first time that Montana’s public school system does not afford them basic rights to direct their child’s education.

For example, when Billings schools announced a mask mandate last fall, parents who disagreed with the policy had little recourse and resorted to staging protests. And now that schools plan to be mask-optional in 2022, the tables have turned. What about parents who want everyone in masks?

Parents have an option to enroll children in a virtual learning platform, but the reality is not all students learn well through this method. Unless parents are wealthy enough to pay for an alternative school or lucky enough to find a support system to facilitate homeschooling, they are stuck with no control over what becomes of their child’s education. Meanwhile, their hard-earned tax dollars continue to fund a system that isn’t doing what they feel is right for their child.

Last year, parents in Bozeman received national attention when they succeeded in reversing a proposed school policy they viewed as advancing controversial Critical Race Theory. However, the victory came after a strong public outcry and months of negotiation with the school district by tenacious parents willing to participate in long and contentious meetings to ensure the school was adopting a policy they supported.

The hard truth for Montana moms and dads is that little stands in the way of a public school system implementing whatever curriculum standards or policies they deem fit, no matter how strong their objections. Without the freedom to choose another option, parents lack real control over directing their child's education.

But Montana’s one-size-fits-all public school system doesn’t afford parents the freedom to choose. Montana lags behind states that embrace education freedom, allowing parents to exercise control over their student’s share of public education funding and choose from a variety of education options that best fit their child's needs. In fact, Montana public school officials have called the very idea of allowing parents the right to opt out of school district policies and find alternatives “dangerous and absurd.”

In their condemnation of freedom of choice, public school officials suggest the right of parents to direct the education of their children applies in practice only to wealthy parents who can afford to seek alternatives to the public school system.

The purpose of the 2011 legislative resolution referenced earlier was to call for the rights of parents to be explicitly enshrined in our Constitution. Even a decade ago, legislators felt our laws, courts and public education system did not adequately protect the rights of parents. It seems now, more than ever, the rights of parents deserve protection.

Kendall Cotton is president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montanans can thrive.

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