In one of the most heavily debated decisions in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers in a Cleveland, Ohio school district.
Nevertheless, several state constitutions strictly prevent such programs, and Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association/Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT), asserts that Montana is one of them.
“What the Supreme Court decision did was give some political opportunity for voucher supporters to say, ‘Now that the Supreme Court ruled this way, why would Montana resist?’” he says. “The answer is that it’s still unconstitutional in Montana.”
Feaver is referring to Article 10, Section 6 of the Montana Constitution, which explicitly states that public aid to sectarian schools is prohibited.
But Robert Natelson, a law professor at the University of Montana, claims that school choice programs would help Montana families provide their children with a quality education.
“I have a kid who was miserable in the public high school,” Natelson says. “And so I moved her to the Catholic school system, and she’s blossoming. Why shouldn’t everybody have that opportunity?”
Those who oppose vouchers say that the problem lies not with such opportunities, but with asking taxpayers—especially those of different faiths—to support religious schools.
Linda McCulloch, director of the Office of Public Instruction, says that even if the Montana Constitution didn’t specifically forbid voucher programs, they still wouldn’t make sense in Montana.
“On a practical level, we’re having a hard enough time funding one system,” McCulloch says. “How would we be able to afford to fund two or more systems of education and do a good job at it?”
While Natelson expects Rep. Joe Balyeat (R–Bozeman) to introduce a school choice bill next session, Feaver predicts it has little chance of passing.
“Our Constitution clearly says, ‘No direct or indirect state sponsorship of sectarian schools.’ It would take a referendum to overturn this, but I’m confident the citizenry would reject it,” says Feaver. “It’s just bad public policy to direct dollars away from our public schools.”
Natelson vehemently disagrees, saying that if public schools were forced to compete with private schools, it would improve the quality of public schools. “When you have competition,” he says, “the people in the schools make the changes.”
McCulloch hopes that Montana’s history of rejecting school vouchers will continue, and that the state might act as an example for the rest of the country.
“Our whole country has been based upon the premise of public education, regardless of race or income level,” she says. “This isn’t a country where we believe in just educating the wealthy. We believe in educating everyone and we need to make sure that stays a premise in the United States.”