School Lawsuit

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Montana is being sued by the K-12 educational bureaucracy because lawsuits have been successful in other states that have similar judges and subjective statements in their
constitutions.  Montana judges have shown that they are willing to both legislate and appropriate from the bench.

Under Montana's Constitution, the legislature is responsible for providing "
a basic system of free quality public elementary and secondary schools" and distributing "the state's share equitably."  But education is not the only responsibility of the legislature. Other equally important needs must be met, such as public safety, infrastructure, plus food, shelter and health care for the needy. Our Constitution gives the job of balancing these competing needs to the 150 members of the Montana Legislature, not to the courts.

The word basic is problematic for the plaintiffs because the drafters of the constitution clearly want a cost effective educational system.  The word basic has customarily described the learning skills of reading, writing and math.  These skills remain the primary emphasis of standardized testing.  Without these skills, students do not have the foundation to be self-learners. 


Therefore, plaintiffs have targeted the word "quality" to try and secure an additional $300 million per year based on a study (Augenblick & Myers) adapted for use in Montana.  While the Augenblick study starts out on firm footing by using school personnel to cost out different sized prototype schools, somehow the cost of the basic system gets lost as the study expands to cover full time kindergarten, extended day instruction, summer school, salary increases for
all the teachers, professional development and extra money for "at risk," Native American and special ed students.


While this expansion of the basic system is suspect, there is also no detail on cost of each component.  For example, how much will a 4.4% raise for 10,408 teachers cost?  Furthermore, if the percentage of at risk, special ed, and Native American students are added together they would make up 60% of the school population. This fuzzy math is acknowledged by the authors of the study: "We treated each group of students with special needs as if they were independent while, in reality, there may be cross-over among groups that leads to some double counting of resources."

Regarding "at risk" students, a blanket statement that "at-risk" kids
require about 30% more money than regular students cannot be validated without details.  Furthermore, "at risk" is determined by the number of students who qualify for a "free or reduced price lunch" because of family income.  Being poor in Montana does not result in learning deficiencies. Likewise, Native American students are not automatically more expensive to educate. It may well be that cultural differences create a need for different services, not more of the same thing.

But what is quality:  money spent, or the finished product?
Webster defines quality as a degree of excellence. Were the writers of our Constitution thinking about extended school day, summer school, full time kindergarten, breakfast and lunch, sports, activities, and so on? Or were they thinking about schools that produce citizens who can read, write, think, self-learn, make a living, love their country, and above all, possess moral values?

Adding $300 million to the yearly expenditure of $1.1 billion per year to K-12 Ed would make Montana fifth in the nation for spending per student per year at $9,185.  New York is first at $10,922 and Utah is last at $4,625 (US Statistical Abstract). The Morgan Quitno study (2002) ranked Montana 3rd in the nation overall on 21 school factors, including proficiency in reading and math.  NY ranked 30th and Utah 17th.  Clearly, more money doesn't necessarily buy quality.

I believe that Montana has quality schools as well as quality administrators, teachers, students and parents.  We may not be able to afford everything we want, but our students will continue to score among the highest in the nation because of our commitment.

By Representative Verdell Jackson