At a time when Montana is decreasing educational funding and the governor has suggested that too much is already being spent on public schools, the results of a new poll by the group Stand Up For Education reveal that about 60 percent of Montanans support additional funding.
“We have a Legislature that does not as a whole support education, and we have a governor who seems to care more about home schooling than public education,” says coordinator Sanna Porte. “It’s a pretty desperate situation.”
Stand Up for Education, a statewide group of educators, parents and concerned citizens, hopes to rectify this situation. Over the last few months, they have held meetings throughout the state trying to rally the public. The group wants voters to pressure those elected officials whose rhetoric supports education but whose voting records do not.
“Candidates will promise a lot of things,” says Missoula Education Association President Dave Severson, who works with Stand Up for Education. “But when the rubber hits the road, as they say, things can change.” And things have changed. To make up for the paucity in resources, many communities, including Missoula, have raised funding through mill levies. But levies cannot always make up the deficit. This translates into higher taxes and fewer art, music and athletic programs, canceled field trips and lower teachers’ salaries.
In fact, over the last 20 years Montana teachers have seen their salaries go from 25th in the nation to 48th in the nation, says Porte. The result has been a statewide teacher shortage.
As roughly 900 teachers retire each year, about 900 new teachers graduate from Montana’s colleges and universities, says Porte. Still, between 70 and 75 percent of these prospective teachers leave Montana because other states offer higher salaries and better benefits.
“While people don’t go into teaching to make money, people still need to make a living,” Porte says. “I think teachers are feeling demoralized.” All of which adds up to lower educational standards in both public schools and colleges and universities. In elementary and secondary schools, class sizes have swelled. At universities and colleges, fewer courses are being offered and tuitions continue to rise. It’s getting harder and harder for students to afford a quality higher education and this has had a negatively impact on the economy, says Severson. If Montana students aren’t academically equipped to compete in the job market with students from other states, businesses aren’t going to set up shop here.
“Education is where we want to start,” Severson says. “Good schools are good economic development.”
One of the best ways for people to get education—and the economy—on the right track is to hold their elected officials accountable and make sure when they say they support education that they really do, says Porte.