You don’t need to be a parent to take care of your local school. But recently around Montana there are groups that call themselves the “parental rights movement” as if they are more interested in public education than those who do not have children in the school system. The Parental Rights Movement is a relatively small group of people who need ownership and clearly do not represent the majority of parents. Lately they have been attacking masks, vaccines and the way we teach history. In their view, they should be able to define school policy because they know what is best for “their children”.
But they have no more “rights” than the rest of us. Schools in Montana are funded by taxes we all pay. Montana’s public schools have about 145,000 students and a total population of more than 1 million. This means that many people without children in the system pay for schools.
And the issue is deeper than tax dollars. Despite the protests of the right against the fact that schools should not teach “values”, the truth is that this is what the education system should do. Simple things like “wait your turn”, “help your neighbor” and “play good sports” are all practical applications of the values we need to function in society. What’s more, schools provide the basic skills needed to be a productive citizen. We are all interested in the success of our schools.
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Perhaps the greatest achievement of American democracy is the creation of a public education system that is open to all citizens. Historically education has been available only to the rich. The rest of us have been pushed to the bottom of the economy to provide the cheap labor needed for economic growth. Most of all, our universal public education system has set the table for the rapid growth and expansion of the American economy. Despite criticism from the far right, American public education has been a resounding success.
Unfortunately, schools are food for right-wing political forces. There are some who do not want their children (or anyone else, if any) to get acquainted with ideas, information and people they do not like. The public school system also has a lot of money that many people would like to borrow for their own private business (i.e. charter schools). Others want to stifle public education by cutting property taxes to benefit their own wallets. These disputes create a frenzy of political activists. It is no coincidence that anti-tax mobs have joined the fight, in addition to Republicans such as Elsie Arntzen and Austin Nadsen, who have urged people to challenge and even sue the local school.
None of this is new. Thirty years ago, the horror story was “Goals 2000”. Then came people like our governor who want to teach Christianity as a science. Others did not want education about human sexuality, and now we even hear about some people who want to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust. The Internet (which would not exist without American public education) provides an unfiltered platform for these people to meet each other, share stories, create conspiracy theories, and mobilize their followers.
Disputes over our children’s learning complicate children’s learning. Meetings of local school boards turn into a gladiatorial arena of angry cultural warriors armed with posters and megaphones. They come to highlight and intimidate their fellow citizens who serve for free on the school board. They are, in a word, hooligans. How we all went to public school. . . we have to confront bullies.
Ken Tula had three children who graduated from Montana public schools. He currently has 2 grandchildren in Montana public schools. He served six years in the Montana State Senate and 4 years in the Civil Service Commission. He is currently the chairman of the nonprofit group Big Sky 55+, which advocates for senior Montana residents.