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SUMMARY: If Montanans care about education, wouldn't we see greater participation in school elections? Perhaps this year we will.

Public concern about education was a constant theme of the recent 90-day session of the Montana Legislature. Education also ranked high among issues prominent in last fall's state and national elections.

But how much do Montanans really care about their schools?

Doubt arises because, when it comes to one of the easiest ways to demonstrate real interest, Montanans have a long track record of registering disinterest. Barring some dramatic break from tradition, relatively few Montanans will even bother to vote in school elections held throughout the state today.

While Montanans typically boast some of the highest voter-turnout numbers in the country in general elections, turnout for elections deciding school board races and local school taxes often runs astonishingly low. It's a good school board election in which one in four eligible voters casts a ballot.

Different people have offered differing interpretations of low participation in school elections. Some people read into the numbers a general public satisfaction with schools - the idea being unhappy people are more likely to vote than content ones. Others conclude the opposite - that voters are, in effect, casting no-confidence votes by staying away from the polls. Neither argument seems very plausible.

What seems more likely is that while almost everyone has some interest in education and taxes and various social and economic issues associated with education, those concerns somehow don't translate into specific interest in the school down the road or the board running it. It's as if many people are focused on the big picture - principles of education or their overall tax bills - without seeing the small picture - who's running their local school and what's happening at the classroom level.

President Bush is placing a high priority on education reform. But the central element of his reform plans is increased proficiency tests to make schools more accountable. Accountable to whom, though? How can we make schools more accountable if only a small fraction of the public bothers to use the one surefire tool for holding public institutions accountable - the ballot?

Perhaps, however, we are looking backward. Maybe increased attention and debate about education, taxes and associated issues will, indeed, send more people to the polls today. Maybe we'll see a surge of voter interest that will confirm the importance Montanans place on education.

We can only hope.

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