After eight years with Governor Brian Schweitzer, many MSU students will for the first time experience a new era of Montana governorship. This particular race should be especially relevant to students, as both candidates have made educational policy a centerpiece of their campaigns. Rick Hill outlines a proposal for educational reform that is radical enough to deter many voters, while containing immense potential for success.
Media discussions of Hill’s philosophy on education tend to focus on the most controversial aspects of his proposal — that tax credits should be used to encourage donors to enable more low-income students to attend private schools, that alternative education options should be accessible for more than just upper-class families and that state funding for charter schools should become a viable option.
Hill’s proposal does not recommend completely autonomous decision making for charter schools. He claims that “appropriate management and student protection can be ensured through guidelines, accountability measures, testing criteria and transparency for charter schools, just as we do for public schools.”
A practical middle ground would be a combination of Hill’s plan with a requirement that any schools receiving state funding meet unbiased, across-the-board standards regarding history and social studies curriculum. With a careful approach, his proposal could promote innovation in Montana education.
The proposal also suggests that the obsession with improving math and reading in public schools should be balanced with an equally important study of history and civics. This brings up what should be the most important “accountability measure” for any non-traditional school receiving public funds — a commitment to teaching history in a historically accurate and open-minded manner. One must recall the outrageous movement in Texas to water down the inclusion of the Civil Rights movement in the public school curriculum.
Some textbooks attempt to exclude factual historical information, an understanding of which is absolutely essential to fostering culturally conscious citizens. Without teaching students about 19th-century government policies regarding Native Americans, or of human rights atrocities like the Holocaust or post-Civil War racial violence in the American South, students will not be on a level playing field when they graduate from public education programs.
As long as alternative education programs are held to state-imposed standards when it comes to history curriculum, Hill’s education proposal is feasible. Alternative or private education is not negative as long as students emerge with an equal amount of knowledge as those attending public schools.
This being said, the other excellent aspects of Hill’s proposal should be acknowledged and become more prominent in the public eye. He suggests incentive programs that would reward good teachers, and he would reform the tenure program so that permanent job security doesn’t decrease productivity in the classroom (as it does in some cases). He also recommends that teachers be evaluated on the basis of student improvement over the year, instead of by inaccurate testing systems such as those required by No Child Left Behind. Hill would also propose to change the inability for schools to transfer surplus funding from one spending area to the other — a practice frequently prohibited.
If Hill agrees that any schools receiving state funding will be held to certain standards in terms of curriculum, his plan could positively impact Montana’s education system. Private or charter schools can provide wonderful opportunities for students who want to experience a different social environment or learn in smaller classes. Voters who have not already should take the time to read Hill’s proposal. Some of Hill’s policies leave much to be desired, but his ideas for educational reform should be seriously considered.